Mick Malthouse eyes the finish line

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It took 663 games for the hard man to reveal, publicly at least, that he had a heart. And if things go as he says they will, the tears he shed in the coaches box after the nailbiting preliminary final win over Hawthorn won’t be repeated after Saturday, no matter what.

Barring the unlikely outcome of another drawn grand final, Mick Malthouse will coach his 664th, and final, AFL game this weekend.

And if anyone was ever to live up to a “no comeback” promise, it is Malthouse.

“I know I’m going to reach the top of the mountain and there’s going to be no tomorrow in terms of that 40 years that I’ve been involved,” Malthouse said at the start of his final week as a football coach.

“It’s just going to stop.”

Those who have seen Malthouse in both his football incarnations are among the true believers.

“He coaches like he played,” says St Kilda legend Kevin “Cowboy” Neale who played with Malthouse in his 53 game-stint with the Saints.

“Uncompromising, disciplined, straight up and down.”

A lot of that came from their old St Kilda coach, Allan Jeans, according to Neale.

“He used to tell us all that the most important thing we could do was to be ourselves.”

Whatever Malthouse may be, he is himself – and it has invariably been good enough.

Malthouse wasn’t a champion player, but in 174 games he got the best out of himself and was rewarded with a premiership at Richmond in 1980.

When he retired after three more seasons, Malthouse had only his playing record to recommend him to Footscray who appointed him as their coach in 1984 at the tender age of 30.

In that first season the Bulldogs challenged for the finals, finishing seventh, improving to third in 1985 and going down by 10 points to Hawthorn in the preliminary final.

After four more seasons with Footscray, Malthouse took up one of the less-sought-after jobs in the AFL with newcomers West Coast.

It is the no-nonsense, and, sometimes heartless approach to football that is remembered well by some of the Eagles players of the time.

“Mick always put it to us straight and hard,” said two-time Eagles premiership player Brett Heady.

“But almost every one of us got a look at the other side. He always knew when to help and when to encourage.”

The West Coast captain in 1990 was Steve Malaxos, the club’s inaugural best-and-fairest winner and a Sandover medallist – and a player who discovered how uncompromising the new coach could be.

Malaxos played 20 games during 1990 including the drawn qualifying final against Collingwood and the replay.

Malaxos was dropped for the remaining finals matches, and replaced as captain.

The really tough part was that the club didn’t allow Malaxos to travel with the team to Melbourne for the semi and the preliminary final.

West Coast won two premierships with Malthouse, in 1992 and ’94 and made the finals in each of his 10 years as coach.

At Collingwood the Malthouse exterior has been at its most crusty, and its most agreeable.

There have been run-ins with journalists and photographers, obtuse “ox is slow, earth is patient” responses and the peculiar retirement-but-not-departure deal that has led to the confusion about his future.

In hindsight Malthouse did remarkably well to get limited Collingwood teams all the way to the 2002 and 2003 grand finals, where they twice came up short against Leigh Matthews’ powerhouse Brisbane lineup.

And he was at his very best in the seven days after the 2010 drawn grand final, allowing the Magpies to play with freedom in the replay.

Scott Watters has seen both sides of Malthouse, as a player at West Coast and as an assistant coach at Collingwood.

“When you measure legacy, once you give someone a little bit of time away from the game, you’ll realise even more so the impact that he’s had on the game,” he said.

“Because he has been such a constant for so many years, we probably take a lot of things for granted.

“When Kevin Sheedy retired a couple of years ago, all of a sudden there was a big hole there and Mick will leave a similar hole.

“He’s an icon on the game.”

Malthouse’s final week as an AFL coach shapes as one of his best.

It began with Dane Swan’s Brownlow medal on Monday and the heartfelt praise of the player for his coach.

And, if fairytales have a place in football, it will end with a premiership on Saturday.

It should also be remembered for the insight it has provided into a coach who truly believes it isn’t about him.

Talk of his retirement and his future is off the agenda.

His most important job, he told Channel 7′s AFL Game Day, will be about getting his players ready to win.

“Any individual stuff will be about the playing group,” he said.

“You cannot afford for one person’s plight to interfere with the team.

“My boys understand that. The club knows that. We’ll be doing everything for the team.

“How they feel for me individually and how I feel for them individually will be hidden. It will be well camouflaged.”

Not too well, you hope.

© AAP 2014
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