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Brendon Bolton was crucified to save SOS's sins

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3rd June, 2019
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After three and a half years and 77 AFL games, Brendon Bolton’s tenure as senior coach of the Carlton Football Club came to a swift end yesterday following a 41-point loss to Essendon in Round 11.

However, while Bolton may have been the most recognisable public face of the club, and clearly had grown to become a target of frustration for supporters, his fingerprints feature far less on Carlton’s current predicament than do those of list manager Stephen Silvagni.

When Silvagni arrived at Carlton in 2015 he took over a list so poorly managed by his predecessors Shane Rogers and Wayne Hughes that it had become widely criticised for a lack of talent. Just a year prior, former Carlton director Bruce Mathieson had called the club’s recruiting department the worst the league.

The incumbent Carlton coach Mick Malthouse was sacked just eight rounds into that 2015 season. Their plans for the legendary coach taking them to premiership glory having failed miserably, the Blues radically changed tack and opted for a list rebuilt as aggressive and deep-cutting as any we’ve seen.

Since then in four offseasons Silvagni has transformed Carlton’s list. Only nine players remain from those who were at the club in 2015: Patrick Cripps, Sam Docherty, Marc Murphy, Kade Simpson, Matt Kreuzer, Ed Curnow, Dale Thomas, Liam Jones and Levi Casboult.

The Blues have made 53 list changes in that space of time, enough to change every player on a standard 44-man AFL list once over with plenty of change remaining. They’ve been one of the most active clubs year after year at both the draft and the trade table.

The result from then until now is that Carlton’s list has become younger on average every year, and their average games experience has followed a downward trend also.

Carlton’s rebuild, 2015-2019
Season Age Experience List changes
2015 24.1 59.8 15
2016 24 53.3 12
2017 23.9 51.8 12
2018 23.8 56.4 14
2019 23.5 52.2 ?

This is to be expected when a club cuts as deeply as Carlton have over the past four years. They said goodbye to a number of experienced players in 2015 in search of ways to get more high draft picks into the club, and continued this trend by trading out Zach Tuohy and Bryce Gibbs in the years that followed.

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With this, naturally, comes a decrease in competitiveness. Sure there are exceptions, but it’s a fairly straightforward rule of the AFL that older and more experienced teams are more likely to win matches. Last year a team who was older or more experienced than their opponents on average was won the game two out of three times.

As such, serious improvement from a rebuilding team should not realistically be expected until they hit the tipping point when the list begins to increase their average age and experience. Let’s contrast Carlton with the Brisbane Lions, a team that has rebuilt over a similar period of time.

Brisbane’s rebuild, 2015-2019
Season Age Experience List changes
2015 22.9 48.6 10
2016 22.6 42.1 12
2017 22.8 40.7 8
2018 23.4 54 11
2019 23.5 55.5 ?

What is immediately apparent is that Brisbane, unlike Carlton, have already crossed that tipping point where average age and experience begin to trend upwards rather than downwards.

It’s no coincidence that this occurred in 2018 season, when we began to see the first signs of improvement from the Lions, and the trend has continued into 2019, when they’ve become a likely finals side.

Eventually Carlton will cross the same threshold and it’ll be reasonable to expect a similar amount of upward progress, but the Blues have opted to send Bolton packing before this moment arrives: why have they been so impatient?

The answer can be found in Stephen Silvagni’s list management decisions which, either by design or failure, have drawn out the length of Carlton’s list build and placed undue pressure on the coach to achieve results that were never realistic given the players available.

This began as early as 2015 when, boasting four picks in the first round of the draft, Silvagni used the first three of these to select key position prospects.

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The old AFL adage that bigger players take more time to develop is oft-repeated for a reason: it’s true. And there’s a certain logic to taking this list approach. If you rebuild with talls first and midfielders later, then both groups will hopefully peak around the same time.

Of course, the trade-off is that it means a longer time spent near the bottom of the ladder, since tall draftees are unlikely to have the quick impact on a club’s fortunes that midfielders might.

This can work in your favour too – it means a more extended period of access to early draft picks – but it also serves to foster impatience and increase expectations.

Stephen Silvagni Carlton Blues AFL

(Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

Silvagni has also been criticised or made the butt of jokes for the way he has churned through fringe mature-age recruits from other clubs, particular those from the GWS Giants, where he was list manager before he moved to Carlton.

To some degree there was no choice but to go through this churning process: the Carlton list had more players that needed to go out than it had quality draft picks which could come in, so finding ways to stock the playing list with enough talent to see it through 22 home-and-away games in a season was necessary.

However one of Silvagni’s most critical errors during this rebuild is that he has not just failed to bring in valuable veterans to provide experience and mentoring for his fresh draftees, but in fact seems not to have bothered seeking them out at all.

Luke Hodge’s impact at Brisbane is the greatest recent example of this, but it’s a long-proven principle. Consider also the value GWS have found in bringing in the likes of Shane Mumford and Steve Johnson, or the impact Daniel Cross had when brought across to Melbourne.

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Last year would have been the perfect time for Carlton to aggressively pursue someone like Jarrad McVeigh or Paul Puopolo – players who have already tasted premiership success and might see the appeal in a generous pay packet and the chance to mentor young players, potentially transitioning into coaching thereafter.

Instead the Blues directed all their energy to sending private jets to Dylan Shiel, when the chances of a highly sought-after prime age midfielder wanting to join the two-win wooden spooners were surely never all that realistic.

Veteran presence in a rebuilding team is crucial. It helps mentor young players to develop their capabilities, and on gameday those veterans can provide a touch of calm, especially in tight finishes where their influence might be the difference between getting over the line or falling heartbreakingly short.

Instead the closest Silvagni came to bringing in a valuable veteran last year was signing Alex Fasolo to a three-year contract, a move that has exactly as ineffective as anyone could have told you it would when the deal first happened.

To his credit, Silvagni has pulled off some canny trades during his time at Carlton – in particular, landing first-round picks in exchange for Lachie Henderson (49 games for Geelong) and Chris Yarran (zero games for Richmond) have both been big wins.

But at other times Silvagni’s trades have baffled, and the returns he has gotten for players like Zach Tuohy and Bryce Gibbs feel underwhelming.

The Tuohy deal for example saw the Blues effectively trade the Irishman for Billie Smedts from Geelong and Caleb Marchbank and Jarrod Pickett from GWS, while also downgrading their second-round pick.

Smedts lasted just one season at the club and Pickett is at long odds not to prove a total bust. Marchbank has played 37 of a possible 55 games and appears the trade’s best hope of not being a total disaster.

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Tuohy would have been happy to stay at the Blues were it not for having received a contract offer that he described as “almost insulting”, which made staying at the club “virtually impossible”.

Surely Silvagni could have finagled another way get Marchbank through the door while being able to retain Tuohy’s valuable senior experience.

Of course, the trade for which Silvagni has drawn the most criticism is last year’s live-draft deal which saw the Blues acquire Liam Stocker and Adelaide’s 2019 first-round pick in exchange for their own first-round selection this year, which is of course currently the No.1 pick overall.

This deal was clearly predicated on a belief at Carlton that they would make at least some progress up the ladder in 2019, but with the team’s age and experience profile continuing to decrease, it was a foolish gamble to make.

The most frustrating aspect of the deal is that the Blues could have easily enough had a second first-round pick last year without putting this year’s first selection at risk.

They traded their way up into the first round to get a pick that would satisfy Adelaide for Mitch McGovern, but could just as easily have kept that selection for themselves, drafted Stocker, passed on McGovern, picked up a similar type in Josh Corbett via their mature access selections, and saved themselves a mountain of stress.

Maybe Stocker will eventually become a player good enough to justify the trade. Maybe the player Adelaide take with the selection will turn out to be a bust!

Still, this was a massive roll of the dice always more likely to fail than succeed, and has placed an unnecessarily high degree of pressure and scrutiny on the club’s on-field performances in 2019.

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Liam Stocker

(Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Hindsight is, as they say, always 20-20, and despite my criticisms of him, I’m not of the belief that Silvagni needs to be shown the door any more than Bolton should have.

If you look at the forest rather than the trees it’s clear that while not every move has proved a winner, he has still turned Carlton’s list into one that has plenty of budding talent.

However, the path he has taken them down was always going to be one that required enormous patience from the club and its fans, patience that it appears the board at least have run out of. I for one can not see any reason why sacking Brendon Bolton should have been the go-to decision in that situation.

Earlier this year the club announced a plan to win a premiership within the next five seasons, a goal which, while not completely unobtainable, is highly fanciful given where they’re currently at in the list-building cycle.

Did Silvagni at any point put his hand up and let the board know they were going to need more time than that – or did he sit back and allow unrealistic expectations to build, knowing that if the axe came swinging, it was never likely to be his head on the chopping block?

I’ve compared Carlton with Brisbane more than once here, and so some might want to point out that Brisbane, too, sacked a struggling coach in Justin Leppitsch during their rebuild, a decision that – with all respect to Leppa – the footy world would unanimously agree was the right call.

But that came after a season where Leppitsch had led the Lions to an average result of -50 points per game, and just twelve months after he had lost critical players Jack Redden and James Aish from the club. Bolton’s average result this year is a much less devastating -23, and aside from Gibbs has seen no significant players ask to leave during his tenure.

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Instead this strikes me as being more comparable to if Brisbane had decided to sack Chris Fagan after a 1-12 start to season 2018. The Lions showed faith that their man would turn it around, knowing he’d been unlucky in some close losses – as has Bolton – and look how well it has worked out for them.

At the press conference where Carlton confirmed Bolton’s axing, club president Mark LoGiudice was able to offer no better reason for Bolton’s axing than simply to say he had not won enough games, that the accountability for winning matches ultimately rested with the senior coach.

That’s the kind of logic I’d expect to see from a Nuffies on AFL Pages facebook post. The Blues were reportedly so disorganised as to not have a caretaker coach lined up when they sacked Bolton, with David Teague telling Sam McClure it was “news to him” that he’d be taking over.

Blues coach Brendon Bolton

(AAP Image/Julian Smith)

Carlton’s senior staff and board lacked the prudence to complete a rational review of their circumstances and how they arrived at them, and instead had only leadership enough to reach for the club’s most prominent face and submit him for ritual slaughter.

Who knows – footy is unpredictable, and it may prove to have a positive outcome. Perhaps the Blues will happen upon the next master coach. Perhaps Bolton even with a mature list would never have achieved much of note. I can’t say what might have happened, none can – but I will say he was never given the chance.

LoGiudice has been on the Carlton board for ten years now and sacked three coaches at that time. When asked yesterday if the failure of this most recent appointment would make him reconsider the wisdom of his own position at the club, the answer was a simple one: “No.”

Best of luck to whoever takes on the senior coaching job at Carlton next. The message is clear: win or be damned.

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