New coaches a major theme in AFL 2012
The big risks in the AFL this year are being taken off the field. The scope for on-field gambles is shrinking as an ever-growing pool of assistant coaches, sports scientists and statistical data mean players are being coached to within an inch of their lives.
Instead, it is in the league’s board rooms that steps are being taken into uncertain territory.
The biggest gamble is unquestionably the introduction of Greater Western Sydney, that massive punt having tipped the AFL into making their first loss in a decade before the Giants even play their opening home and away game.
Five established clubs have also taken punts, appointing first-time senior coaches.
In one sense, that is a low-stakes gamble, given rookie coaches generally come much cheaper than their experienced counterparts.
But as Kevin Sheedy, the 64-year-old, four-time Essendon premiership mentor who is bucking the youth trend as he takes the GWS reins, puts it, clubs risk losing much more than they save.
“To me, it’s about how you value your yearly income of say $40-50 million turnover and whether you can appoint a head coach to get the value out of that,” Sheedy told AAP.
“If your income coming into your club is a $40 million income and in five years you’ve gone nowhere, that’s a $200 million stuff-up.”
The case for having an experienced hand overseeing the on-field return on that investment is strengthened by a review of the premiership dynasties of recent decades.
Leigh Matthews was in charge of his second club when he took Brisbane to their triple-premiership triumph in 2001-03, as was Malcolm Blight at Adelaide in 1997-98.
Mark Thompson had to survive a major review at Geelong to gain an eighth season in charge, before leading the Cats to their first premiership in 44 years in 2007, then another two years later.
The counter-argument is Chris Scott taking the Cats to another flag last year, in his debut season, even if he did inherit an exceptionally talented, experienced and hungry squad.
But Scott’s success hardly justifies the fact that 10 of the current 18 coaches are in either their first or second year.
Since Sheedy was sacked by Essendon at the end of 2007, 19 head coaching appointments have been made, all first-timers except for Ross Lyon’s move to Fremantle this season and Sheedy’s own coaching comeback.
Three of those – Melbourne’s Dean Bailey, Essendon’s Matthew Knights and Fremantle’s Mark Harvey – are already gone.
Interestingly, both Knights and Bailey were preferred to Sheedy, Knights replacing him at Essendon and Bailey beating him to the Demons job.
But Sheedy, who has spent time as the AFL coaches’ association president, said he did not begrudge the many newcomers a chance, particularly if they had served a “decent apprenticeship”.
Of the coaches aiming to emulate Scott’s brilliant career start, Nathan Buckley at Collingwood most closely mirrors the young Geelong mentor’s situation, inheriting a recent premiership club.
But the pressure on Buckley will be greater.
Scott took over a side expected to slide after Thompson walked out.
Buckley has been in line for the Magpies job for two years and inherits a squad in their prime.
Also burdened by high expectations will be Scott Watters at St Kilda, given the Saints were finalists last year, grand finalists the two years before that and have declared their premiership window still open.
Mark Neeld at Melbourne, Brenton Sanderson at Adelaide and the Western Bulldogs’ Brendan McCartney can expect slightly more leeway.
But patience among Demons and Bulldogs fans, whose clubs have the longest ongoing premiership droughts, will only stretch so far.
Scott’s job won’t get any easier in his second year, having lost his premiership captain Cameron Ling and No.1 ruckman Brad Ottens to retirement.
Still, that is nothing to the task Sheedy faces, with his young Giants universally tipped as wooden spooners, with some experts doubting they will even win a game.
A benefit of Sheedy’s vast experience, though, is that he can afford to take the big-picture view.
That is both in terms of the time he acknowledges it will take the Giants to climb the ladder and the scope of his role in establishing a club, not just a team.
“A young coach might say `I just want to get in and win a premiership and keep my job,’” Sheedy said.
“Well, to me it’s about building a great club up here in western Sydney.”© AAP 2014