Why the Dragons have fallen so far
Josh Dugan performs strongly in his first hit out for the Dragons (AAP Image/Action Photographics, Steve Christo)
In a recent article, mastermind5991 asked the pertinent question: where has it all gone wrong for the St George-Illawarra Dragons.
Mastermind mentioned the current crop of players at St George-Illawarra, but I think the problems with the Dragons go much higher. I believe the main problem lies in the current board and management, and the present situation parallels the demise of the Parramatta Eels in the late 1980s.
Although I was only a kid in the late eighties, I fondly remember the great Parramatta team from that era, when Eels fans enjoyed the club’s first golden period during the decade of bad hair and synthesisers.
The former CEO Dennis Fitzgerald was given much of the credit for Parramatta’s success, having taken over as CEO of the club in 1973 when Parra was in a state of disrepair, and building them into one of the most successful clubs of the eighties.
However, the club’s last premiership in 1986 saw the retirement of two of their all-time greats in Mick Cronin and Ray Price, while other key players like Peter Sterling, Brett Kenny, Peter Wynn, Steve Ella and Eric Grothe retired a short time later.
Fast forward to 2010 and St George were also a team of ageing stars who had likewise provided great service to their club, but who were only a few years from retirement – Gasnier, Cooper, Creagh and Young.
And like Parramatta in 1986, the current Dragons board has failed miserably to replace those players, despite an enviable junior league and sufficient funds in the kitty.
Player management is not just about sourcing and attracting top talent (from juniors and external sources), but is also about retaining talent. Both Fitzgerald in the nineties and Peter Doust in the noughties have failed here.
For Parramatta, the board’s inability to rebuild their roster meant the club failed to make the finals between 1987 to 1996, and despite brief periods at the top, the club has been in the doldrums ever since.
This brief history teaches clubs like St George-Illawarra a few lessons.
Firstly, although success is never immediate, with a strong and committed management, a team can attain great success in a relatively short period of time. Namely, Parramatta went from wooden spooners in 1970 to grand finalists in 1976, before earning their first premiership in 1981.
Similarly, the South Sydney club was arguably in an even more parlous position in 1997 when Russell Crowe and Peter Holmes a Court took over. As with Parramatta, success has been a hard grind, taking several seasons to build, but has culminated in the present season being the best for the Cardinal and Myrtle since 1971.
The second lesson is that while success normally builds slowly, failure can beset a club very quickly. This has certainly happened to the Dragons, who have gone from Premiers in 2010 to potential wooden spooners only three years later.
Of course, this has happened to other clubs before – Roosters fans in particular have experienced a roller coaster in the past decade, from premiers in 2004 to the spoon in 2009, and back to a grand final appearance in 2010.
So, why have the Dragons fallen where other clubs have enjoyed consistent success (Storm, Canterbury and Manly) or experienced relatively brief periods in the cellar (Roosters).
In the case of St George-Illawarra, I don’t put this down to the players, but to the board, and in particular CEO Peter Doust and his fellow management.
Back to Dennis Fitzgerald at the Eels. Although Fitzgerald had contributed significantly to the Eels going from cellar dwellers to Premiers, by the time he was finally forced out of the club in 2009 he had served as CEO for a remarkable 36 years.
I can think of very few leaders who are able to maintain their position at the top for such a length of time – unless we’re talking about political dictators. Indeed, Fitzgerald’s nickname was ‘The Emperor’ and he apparently revelled in that moniker.
The ‘emperor’ tag provides an insight into the problem experienced by the Eels, and now St George. With rare exceptions, a man like Fitzgerald who maintains leadership at the top for so long is often a leader who treats his club as his own personal fiefdom, rather than as a club that is owned by the supporters.
Like a dictator, he invariably makes decisions that are designed to preserve his position of power, rather than decisions that are beneficial to the club he is meant to serve. While there are rare exceptions (like Ferguson at Manchester United), leaders who behave this way invariably fail to bring long-term success to their clubs.
I see Peter Doust as being the present-day Dennis Fitzgerald.
Like Fitzgerald he presided over a successful period for the club, including a fruitful merger with the Illawarra Steelers and finally a Premiership in 2010.
However, like Fitzgerald he has also presided over a rapid fall from grace for the club, mainly due to his management’s failure to rebuild the player roster.
And like Fitzgerald, it seems to me that Doust is treating his position as though the club is there to serve him, rather than the other way around.
Sadly, Parramatta retained Fitzgerald at the helm for such a long period that irreparable damage has been done to this once proud club. St George is only a few years into their decline, but if they do not act to reinvigorate the board and management, the fans of the Red V may be looking at a similarly long period at the bottom.
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