Extracted from the book Footy's Greatest Coaches, edited by Stephanie Holt and Garrie Hutchinson and published by Coulomb Communications in 2002
Coach-as-God is the ultimate metaphor, obviously, and an easy leap to make, like a bloke’s just standing there underneath it... like pulling clouds down out of the sky. Pulling the strings on a giant chess board is probably an outmoded image for the coach now though, like the field marshal commanding his troops from the turret of a tank or the idea of God himself as an old white man with a beard; now it’s more like holding the playstation on a giant computer game...
Just as there’s too much of everything these days (too much information, too much choice, too much tool for the job), there’s too much football - way too much football - and there’s too much to all that football. That is to say, again like every other aspect of our lives these days, football is over-scrutinised and over-regulated, generally deconstructed and left just to hang there 24-7 on pay like yesterday’s cold pie.
People play the game of being a footy fan much more seriously than I do. Especially in Melbourne, where people talk about football a lot and play the tipping comps and all that. I don’t do any of that. I live in Sydney for one thing, and it has perhaps been part of the Sydney Swans’ problem in 2002 that they are not so publicly accountable in a city that really couldn’t give a shit about the AFL unless the Swans are winning.
But the Swans’ sustained underachievement finally did give rise to talk about the coach. It all comes down to the coach in the end, especially when he’s coming out of contract...
I watch as many good-looking games as I can with limited time. That might mean a couple a weekend. I have a young family and I’m more likely to be trying to get my kids to kick the footy in the park than falling asleep in front of Channel fucking Nine in the middle of the freezing night. Not that I don’t have deep roots in the game. I grew up in Melbourne and as a 9-year old I saw the Saints win the ’66 flag. I barrack for the Swans now and have done since I moved to Sydney, like the Swans themselves, at the start of the eighties. There’s still almost nothing I love so much as a really great game of footy.
As a writer of non-fiction I’ve never let the fact I have no real qualifications stop me from talking about anything, and similarly I will seize upon any opportunity I get to comment on footy. I figure, as probably most guys in the outer do too, if I shout loud enough, someone’s got to hear me!
Football is becoming a game played more and more in the coaches’ box, as the inception this season of the ultraflood shows. The coach is now the fulcrum of almost everything in football, the point at which everything feeds in and then beams out again. He is the game’s gatekeeper, a sort of sage who takes us out onto the field of play itself, leads us by the hand but asks us not to ask too many questions. Little wonder coaches have the air of the messiah so persistantly rested upon them.
So God is an old white man! The question might rather be, then, How much more of a coaches’ game do we want football to become? When does it stop being footy as we’ve always understood it and start becoming something else? (like some strange reality show aimed at an international television audience).
We might also wonder, What can we learn from footy’s great and not-so-great coaches that applies to life in general? And, How different is that be from the self-help so successfully peddled by the latest new variation on the classic old snake-oil salesman, the ‘Life Coach’?
Is football limited as a metaphor for life? Or is the situation rather that life is a metaphor for footy?
‘Clapton is God’ was the grafitti that started appearing on London walls in the mid-sixties when the guitar hero was playing with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, just before he founded Cream. This is more like ‘Ablett is God’ than positing the coach as same, the featured soloist who outstrips even his own leader. But without the relatively obscure John Mayall, Clapton wouldn’t have had the framework within which to develop - to transcend - in the first place. Mayall’s Bluesbreakers schooled a generation of musicians who became much better known than their former boss, who himself is probably best known now for losing his world famous pornography collection in a fire at his LA home.
So it’s all relative I suppose. We’d all like to believe there’s someone out there with the answers.
In football, the buck stops at the coach. The coach must be a man of vision and strength. He must be a man too, and, it seems, a former player. But beyond that, every one is different.
Consider another musical comparison: Two of the greatest ever black American bandleaders took a totally opposite approach to leading their bands: Duke Ellington was himself something of lush who gave his men an equally long leash, while James Brown was a strict disciplinarian who fined his musicians for misconduct or bum notes - yet both led bands for lifetime at the top.
Another appealing parlour game might be to compare football’s great coaches to our political leaders: Was Ron Barassi football’s Gough Whitlam? Certainly that would make Malcolm Blight Don Dunstan. But who is John Howard? Who would want to be?
But just as in Rollerball, no coach - no-one - can get bigger than the game. American football is the prime example of game shaped and run by coaches, and since I’m a commentator with no vested interests to protect or any other decorums I might feel obligated to, I’m quite prepared to say what most of us think, which is that gridiron’s a stupid game. And it is. This is not how we want Australian Rules to develop.
Which is what the ultraflood is threatening to do.
Rodney Eade was a hero when he arrived in Sydney in 1996 and took the Swans straight into the Grand Final, for the first time in fifty years. Part of the reason for that success, as has been acknowledged, was that Eade was an innovator of the flood, which served him the dual purpose of blocking up the opposition and clearing space for Tony Lockett. It’s ironic, then, that when the Swans hit a certain ground zero in 2002, in the Round 5 draw against St.Kilda, Eade was beaten at his own game. Some people reckon Grant Thomas shouldn’t be coaching a League side, but his ultraflood certainly snuck up and bit Rodney Eade on the bum.
It’s also ironic, or significant, that this game - a game played almost entirely in the coaches’ boxes? - has been called one of the worst games of football ever played.
Despite occasional instances to the contrary like the above, however, AFL football still largely remains a seemingly wild, untamed game, and that’s why its fans have stuck with it even in the face of the onslaught of global media sports - because there is nothing like it, and because what it is is freer, faster, more colorful.
The game is ironically becoming subject to more control yet ideally less intervention, from umpires as well as coaches. Even as the currents that drive it from just beneath the surface become more and more complex, the game becomes yet faster, could even appear to the untrained eye as approaching anarchy. Maybe this just goes to show that anarchy can be workable but only given - almost like traditional Aboriginal society, which gives greater argument for the marngrook roots of football - an invisible web of relations and considerations.
So how do coaches harness the tendency to chaos? A lot of it must be organizational and people-management skills, plus, the more of it that’s sheer football smarts and vision, the better. The great coaches have to be charismatic, credible, a zen master. A lot of the effectiveness comes down to oratory, bearing generally. Obviously this is long and rich football tradition. Imagine, say, a book or some sort of document of transcriptions of the great half-time and three-quarter time addresses! Unfortunately this is oral history lost. But just imagine it! wouldn’t it be wonderful?
I listen to the resident Life Coach on Sydney radio and I hear pure rhetoric and hollow promises. I see the results Leigh Matthews gets out of the Brisbane Lions and I am impressed by him, I am impresssed when I hear him speak away from the rote stuff of the post-game press conference.
I have often wondered what it must be like to be a player under a coach who doesn’t inspire. I interviewed Allan Joyce once and he seemed such a dour, unimpressive man I couldn’t believe he’d actually coached Hawthorn to a premiership, even allowing for all the momentum left by Allan Jeans, one of the truly great coaches.
I like the mad poetic coaches, the philosophers and visionaries. It is my belief you’ve got to have that poet’s spark. But I think Kevin Sheedy has become a bit self-conscious in his resident role as a hoodoo guru. Certainly, it’s not enough any longer to just play the boys Rocky or some such drivel; it’s not enough to offer oratory however impassioned if it’s all the usual cliches. Footballers like all of us are oversaturated with bullshit messages from the media. The coach has to successfully compete against this ever-increasing din. The way so many people, especially young people (which footballers tend to be), contend with this flood of information is by taking it with irony. But I’m sure there’s some formula somewhere that says you can’t combine motivation and irony.
But then sometimes even the cliches can be powerful. As the post-modernist position goes, it’s all got to do with context, and I would add, delivery. Sometimes I’ve wondered if it’s possible to reduce my own life to its mantras in a series.
Football, like life, is ultimately a spiritual journey; what then can football and coaches learn from the lessons life coaches us in?
Some of the basic life questions are not addressed by football. Like in the first place, why? Why anything? It does not become a footballer, like a soldier, to wonder why. Many will remember the classic old Monty Python skit in which a soccer game is played off between the philosophers and the Long John Silvers, and even then the Long John Silvers run rings around the philosophers because all the philosophers can do is stand there scratching their beards!
Putting aside for a moment though the existential dilemma that most of us face at some point in our lives, once the leap of faith is made, the threshold crossed, football opens up to practically every other question that follows in the universe. Like, simply, Do you want to win or lose?
Life is a game, some people say. Other people might say, life is a dream. I look back over my own life now and I know there was a long period when I got lost in a dream. But I suspect life’s more manageable, and fun, if approached more prosiacally, and I’m even hopeful now that I’ll play out a full four quarters.
And my coach in this biggest game of all? It’s hard to put a name to it; but I can’t help thinking of that great old Bobby Bare tune, “Dropkick Me Jesus, Through the Goalposts of Life.”
Life coaches us in life, there’s no shortcuts, you’ve got to find out for yourself and it’s only through bitter experience that you can realistically apply the wisdom acquired. Swallowing some self-help plan or a prescribed set of platitudes isn’t going to change anything.
The first quarter is all an innocent scramble perhaps not unlike the early days of the game itself. Defining our parameters, and figuring out how to work within those parameters. These are among our fundamental implants, the basic codes of social behaviour. A man’s got to know his limitations - this is a line from one of the early Clint Eastwood movies that always stuck in my mind, even if I didn’t really appreciate it till some time later.
Growing up in Melbourne in the 1960s, football was the beginning and end of my world. Many if not most of the life lessons I learnt as a youngster were connected to football. ‘If you can’t be a footballer, at least try to look like one’: This was my father telling me to pull my socks up and tuck my jumper in. These are about the only words of wisdom I remember him ever imparting to me. What they were all about, I suppose, was keeping up appearances.
What were the other Australian Rules life coached me in? Well, certainly, to cite Monty Python again, the rule that recurred through their list of Australian Rules - No Poofters.
In his book Deady Unna? on which the film Australian Rules was based, with its football backdrop, Phillip Gwynne writes: “You’ve got to look like you’re trying... If you don’t then you’re a gutless wonder. A gutless wonder is about the worst thing you can be in our town. If you’re a boy that is. If you’re a girl then it’s a slack moll...”
That sounds like the same set of rules I grew up with.
Moreover, the defining moment for Gwynne’s anti-hero Blackie is having to face down an opposition ruckman - and succeeding by accident! This starts to get at the role luck and chance play in football, just as in life.
You can’t buck the system, I remember my mother despairing repeatedly during my rebellious teenage years. The thing with me was that I didn’t limit my rebellion to my teenage years. I took it all rather seriously and I suppose in a way the fact that I’m here telling you this now is proof positive that you can buck the system. But I’m here to tell you too, it’s a rough path to hoe.
I was going back into the why of it I suppose, that first question that footy doesn’t address. I ‘retired’ from a promising junior career, as they say, and repaired to my room to smoke dope and listen to records and ponder the primal questions. I was impressionable and I read books like On the Road, Catch 22, The Trial, The Dice Man, and I got into dada and surrealism. I was interested in the idea of truth and beauty. All that only substantiated the call to arms I sensed in proto-punk glam rock. I threw everything in, any expectations my parents may have had for me, and ‘dropped out’ as they used to say, and moved to a new town and started writing about music.
‘Black Angel’s Death Song’, ‘No Fun’, ‘No Future’, ‘Blank Generation’, ‘Less Than Zero’, ‘Stranded’, ‘Pretty Vacant’: In my naive enthusiasm I misread the signs. These warcries of alienation and nihilism were to me more a liberating force. Naturally it all ended up where it pointed - in a mess, addled years of drug abuse. In a way this was my generation’s war, self-inflicted or otherwise. I was able to pull out of it I think because basically I do have a positive world view, I didn’t hate myself and want to die, I just wanted to avoid growing up. I feel sure there would be no positive benefit whatsoever for footballers to experiment with these sort of mind games. Be careful what you wish for, I came to understand this later too.
Football has, however, learnt much, if unwittingly, from the recovery movement. Many of the people I know who have kicked drugs have done so with the help of Narcotics Anonymous. I have never been a member of the fellowship myself, perhaps because I’ve never lost a liking for drink, but I greatly admire the selfless work it’s done to help so many people, and as someone who went to the brink too, I can relate to much of its program.
In football terms, say you were coaching a team trailing badly at half time: Just by swapping some of the terminology, the first step of NA’s (and AA’s) famous twelve step program would make a good place to start a fightback - ‘We admitted that we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanagable’.
This is a form of acceptance that approaches Zen, banishing angst and creating a platform for forward movement. NA is full of great tags. Like the one about asking the Higher Power for the courage to change things, the serenity to accept things you can’t change and the wisdom to know the difference. It’s hard to imagine anyone, football coaches and players included, who wouldn’t benefit from trying to apply this homily.
But perhaps the greatest gift, the great single grab NA has given the world is the idea of One Day at a Time. ‘Just for today’ the five dictums of NA’s Living the Program begin... Just for today, they say in effect, I will achieve my objective - staying clean - and then tomorrow I will repeat the process. It is a way of setting manageable goals, by trying to live in the moment.
We all know that modern football could barely exist without the concept, the catchphrase and soundbite, One game at a time. It is the game’s great cliche. One universal law. Coaches usually use it to end conversations.
And so in the last quarter (One quarter at a time) you arrive, hopefully, at a Zen calm and clarity, which is a lot like recapturing the feeling of the first quarter, stilling the mind and letting the body do the work, just letting it happen, trying not to interfere too much with the free flow of nature’s best instincts.
I’ve been throwing this term ‘Zen’ around a bit I know and I’m the first to admit I do it as a complete dillatante. This is how shallow I am: Maybe a decade back I read The Inner Game of Tennis, and even if it didn’t do much for my erratic serve or troublesome backhand drive, it gave me a few half-baked philosophical ideas.
By now I suspect this seminal self-help title, by W. Timothy Gallwey (of course), if not completely forgotten, is hideously unfashionable. My copy is a remaindered 1986 edition, after it was first published and a best-seller in 1975. Gallwey dedicates the book to his parents and Guru Maharaj Ji (‘who showed me what Winning is’), and it opens with the inscription, Men play games because God first plays a Game. Gallwey is described in his bio as spending ‘most of his time in the Los Angeles offices of the Inner Game Corporation, developing an Inner Game approach to such diverse fields as selling, management, stress, diet, music and quality of work’. Check it out on the internet.
Around the same time I read The Inner Game of Tennis, I hasten to add, I also dabbled in popular quantum mechanics - in other words, Stephen Hawking, the Chaos Theory, The Tao of Physics, all that. I loved the idea that God plays dice with the universe. Obviously it all pointed in the same direction.
What I mean when I use the term ‘Zen’ is to suggest a certain resignation, not so much to fate but karma - there’s another buzzword I know, but I think most people know what we mean when we say it: It means you only get what you give. Now there’s another cliche. But to me it’s a truism I’ve only now, in the autumn of my life, come to understand.
When I went to the brink, all I found was grey death. Saying no to the devil, to paraphrase the Reverend Gary Davis, I came back from the brink and what I found was that the why of it had become the what had been. You accumulate a life as you lead it, the sum of moments is experience is character and that gives you a grounding in the eternal unconscious, or at least some purchase on it, on balance and grace.
Maybe this is why they say you have to lose a Grand Final before you can win one.
The question is sometimes asked, Could someone who’s never really played the game ever become a top coach? I’m not certain of the answer for a couple of reasons, but I’ve begun to suspect there is one qualification above all others that every good coach needs - to not be young.
I think you need to have lived a life, even if only a football life, which is replete with disappointments and pain, in order to approach the sort of humility, humour and patience - and perhaps even imagination too - that every coach needs.
Similarly I think a team needs that same forging in fire. And I think the good coaches know you can’t coach experience, you can’t coach the bond that is a uniform desire to expunge the anguish of loss either. It just has to grow.
If I hadn’t already felt the need to loose my ego, to learn humility and patience, then certainly having children hammered it home. Had I not adapted, I could have cruelled other young lives as well as continuing to cruel my own. Perhaps being a (non-absent) father and coaching a football side are not dissimilar either.
Just like in the Bible, the flood is an evil pestilence unleashed upon the land. But I wouldn’t think the coaches who felt they had either the talent or desire at their disposal ever entertain doing anything but playing attacking football. After all, one of the things everyone says about the flood is that it will never win you a Grand Final. Might this, in part, explain the Swans’ failure in ’96?
At the same time I don’t think coaches using the flood - desperate men in desperate times - would much respond to an appeal to consider the higher health and beauty of game.
If Rodney Eade doesn’t have his contract renewed in Sydney at the end of the 2002 season, it won’t be because he used the flood or didn’t use the flood. He might have even invented it. But it will be because it seems like an era is over. And it is, just ask Tony Lockett.
As the Swans plumetted in 2002 from finals aspirants to hapless losers, I was reminded of one of the basic rules of the game that I’d grown up with too but which certainly I’d forgotten: Bad kicking is bad football.
And it is. Just ask Danny Frawley too.
So, first of all, Learn to kick. There’s no point getting it if you can’t do anything with it.
Football is a simple game. Don’t unnecessarily complicate it.
Just be first to the ball, and look to go down the guts.
(Long bombs to Snake.)
There’s no quicker way home.
Be careful what you wish for.