Crikey Sports has the pleasure of having a guest post by David Latham, a Collingwood Moderator on BigFooty, Australia’s largest and most popular AFL internet forum and has recently completed an honours thesis on Australian Rules Football from 1870 – 1920.
BigFooty’s David Latham writes:
If death and taxes are the two inevitabilities of this mortal coil, the two inescapable axioms of modern football following a string of losses are; sack the coach and purge the list. Either the coach doesn’t have a winning game plan, or there’s something wrong with the cattle. It’s only a short step from there to blaming the coach for the list as well.
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At least that’s the popular view, if talk-back radio and internet forums are any indication. Patience is certainly not a virtue in modern football. Whereas the fantasies of the football fan are boundless, the realities are more complex. The intense scrutiny which has come about as a result of the 24 hour sports news cycle, has not yet translated into a very sophisticated appreciation of the elements that go into building an ominous football club.
Every fan is aware that on-field results are often determined by 1%ers, so any incremental advantage that can be secured from strengthening the various departments of a club is like gold dust. The more robust each cog is, the stronger the machine.
The building blocks for success are numerous and interconnected, but the first, and most banal factor is a clubs’ finances.
The salary cap might be an equalisation measure which has improved the standard of the game immensely – with every team having played a preliminary final since 2000 – but there exists no such cap on spending in other areas of a football department. A wealthy club can attract the best recruiters, fitness and conditioning staff, assistant coaches, medicos, membership and marketing staff. Each of those plays a vital role.
Before a player even gets to the list, he has to be recruited. A good recruiting department is perhaps as valuable as the head coach. Talent spotters spend hundreds of hours watching the feeder competitions and pouring over footage to unearth raw talent and to address needs before putting forward their recommendations.
Picking bottom aged players, players who have dropped off at draft camp, who have sustained fixable injuries, who have large development potential, who have enormous work ethic, athleticism and who might be hidden away in the nooks of the football landscape is the task of the recruiting department. Picking out diamonds later in the draft is at an absolute premium for clubs.
Fitness and conditioning
If a club has an excellent fitness department, including technology – such as Collingwood’s hyperbaric chamber – the recruitment staff can be confident of fast-tracking and developing young players ahead of schedule. Tailoring individual programs for players and giving them top-flight medical support, to overcome injuries or improve fitness, gives an enormous fillip to a football club. If the downside of a potential recruit was fitness rather than skill, a good conditioning department can overcome that issue and thereby raise a player to AFL stature. The ability to bring in rookies and have them playing at senior level is a testament to a strong recruiting and fitness department.
Each line has their own coach which allows groups to receive specialised attention. To have someone like Steven Silvagni dealing with defence at St Kilda is a great boon. Areas of expertise that might be lacking with the head coach can be introduced via assistants, a case in point being Brad Scott’s sports science background at Collingwood. Assistant coaches coming from other clubs bring other game styles and perspectives to the head coach.
Finance and marketing staff
Building the bottom line and growing the brand obviously feeds back into a club’s capacity to recruit the best support staff, but it also allows a team to avoid selling home games as well as attracting big crowds. With sponsorship comes also excellent facilities.
A football club’s board is ultimately responsible for the overall direction of a club. If a board is impatient, or overly optimistic, it can hire the wrong staff or coach. The hiring decisions have a flow on and multiplier effect, and if not gotten right, can seriously damage a club.
Any weaknesses within a club feed on down the line. A poor recruiting department can lead to a list with little upside, too many players in one line and without a line of succession.
If players are held onto too long in the hope of imminent success, instead of being traded while they retain good value, the wheels can come off, a la Brisbane this year.
What is patently clear is that there are a multitude of factors feeding into a teams’ success or otherwise, not that this is the common interpretation. In fact, one could argue that the head coach owns only a portion of responsibility, doing his best with what he is bequeathed.
It’s not so sexy, but the buck must ultimately stop with the board who are charged with overseeing all facets of a football operation. They are hardly open to the same conjecture and exposure as a coach, their decisions and faces, hidden as they are, behind closed doors. A coach of course does have to be judged by his own measurements and responsibilities, as must every staff member at every department, but the fish always rots at the head. And make no mistake, the board is the head of a club.