This column starts at an old-fashioned pie-night in 1981, Channel Seven’s Dorcas St studio in South Melbourne the venue. The event was a promotion for the grand final of the erstwhile mid-season night competition.
Carlton were in the final and their coach, David Parkin, was interviewed during the evening for the benefit of the assembled throng.
Perhaps imagining all present would have hoed into the free beer and pies, such as to have little memory of anything he might say, ‘Parko’ dropped one of his more candid gems.
Questioned about the importance of coaches, the eventual overseer of four premierships said he felt the previous three VFL flags had been won in spite, rather than because, of the coaches involved. It was a self-effacing remark because he was one of the relevant trio (with Hawthorn in 1978), along with Alex Jesaulenko (the last playing-coach to land a flag) and Richmond’s Tony Jewell.
That the question was asked at all indicates the issue of coaches’ worth was then on the radar. And the answer Parkin gave confirms the jury was very much out. To be fair, a couple of years after Carlton won the 1981 premiership, Mike Fitzpatrick told me a story about that grand final. Captain of the Blues, Fitzpatrick admitted trudging to the three-quarter-time huddle believing Collingwood had Carlton’s measure. Inspired by Parkin though, he came away convinced his team would win. Which they did.
Nevertheless, you get the point. Coaching wasn’t particularly scientific back then and we all wondered whether it was over-rated. Clearly that’s changed. Look at the impact of Luke Beveridge and Alastair Clarkson.
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So, when did amateur motivation, long on passion and intimidation but not so strong on manoeuvring the pieces on the board, turn professional?
Of course, it’s been an evolutionary process without one particular breakthrough moment. Len Smith is seen by many who followed him as the father of the next generation of coaches. His brother, Norm, became a legend. Norm’s protégé Ron Barassi, likewise. Tom Hafey preached new standards of fitness. Allan Jeans reinforced old-fashioned values. Kevin Sheedy challenged long-held orthodoxies. Parkin took individual player preparation and assessment to new levels.
Then there was Mick Malthouse, whose West Coast Eagles defended across the ground’s entirety like no team before them. Paul Roos later took that to another level and won a flag in Sydney.
Working alongside Roos at that time was Ross Lyon. I don’t think I’ve observed a more interesting coach than Lyon in close to 40 years covering this competition. I have not seen one – not one – who put his own stamp on a team, as visually identifiable as the goal-posts, as Lyon did at St Kilda.
The list Lyon inherited when first appointed was in apparent decline and he took time to find his feet. When he did, he created a unit like no other. A group with a core of champions but a shaky bottom end was inculcated in the concept of team defence. Lyon’s players talked of ‘Saints footy’.
In 2009, ‘Saints footy’ gave rise to an incredible season: 20 wins, 19 of them on the trot, with just two home-and-away defeats by margins of two and five points. The Saints ultimately suffered a heart-breaking, 12-point loss to Geelong in a thrilling grand final. The aggregate losing margin in their three defeats was, thus, 19 points (six of them after the final siren in the grand final). No other team in history has failed to win the flag off such a figure.
The most telling number of all, though, is in the ‘points against’ column: 1411. That’s the lowest-ever in the 22-game season. Opposing teams were trapped in ‘The Lyon Cage’.
If there was a knock on the coach, it was that he went full bore for a flag and didn’t prepare a list for the future. After the Saints slipped in 2011, Lyon was poached by Fremantle. In his second year there, he took the Dockers to a grand final in which they stretched Hawthorn but eventually succumbed. For four straight seasons, they finished top six and among the two lowest ‘points against’ teams in the competition.
But, as at St Kilda, Lyon came up without a flag and with a fading list.
Last year, the Dockers lost Nat Fyfe and Aaron Sandilands for much of the season, while a 35-year-old Matthew Pavlich was limping to the line. They plunged to 16th and were forced into a clean-out. The new season has started abysmally.
While in 1981 we pondered whether coaches really mattered, today we know they’re critical. Ross Lyon has shown himself, in the last decade, to be with the best. Not so long ago, it seemed his method would ensure the competitiveness of any group he coached. In this game though, lists age and strategies move fast.
While Lyon is in the fortunate position of having a long-term contract, it doesn’t alter the fact that he’s now facing his greatest challenge.
He’s established a fine reputation, but now must go to places he hasn’t previously ventured if that’s to be sustained.