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Carlton and North Melbourne appointed their caretakers too soon

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21st August, 2019
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The last month saw both Rhyce Shaw and David Teague turn their respective caretaker roles with North Melbourne and Carlton into full-time appointments.

It is clear both Shaw and Teague have done an excellent job in their new roles. Both have greatly improved their teams’ records and are overseeing a strong brand of footy. Shaw has improved the Kangaroos behind a focus on the contested ball, which has meant North has become a genuinely challenging side to play. Teague, conversely, has freed up the Blues in playing a more open, attacking brand of footy that has supercharged Carlton’s scoring.

But despite the merits of Shaw and Teague, both clubs have erred in appointing them too soon. North Melbourne and Carlton have narrowed their options and ignored the lessons of history in appointing their caretakers, and it may ultimately be to their detriment.

To demonstrate the risks faced in appointing a caretaker coach, I have compiled the records of the last ten caretaker coaches who were later appointed to the full-time job of that club and compared their winning record as a caretaker to their winning record as a full-time coach.

David Teague

(Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Coach Caretaker win rate Full-time win rate
Matt Primus 71 per cent 20 per cent
Brett Ratten 0 per cent 54 per cent
Mark Harvey 57 per cent 39 per cent
Neil Craig 44 per cent 57 per cent
Paul Roos 60 per cent 57 per cent
Peter Rohde 100 per cent 18 per cent
Grant Thomas 14 per cent 54 per cent
Terry Wallace 30 per cent 56 per cent
Jeff Gieschen 80 per cent 52 per cent
Alan Joyce 60 per cent 38 per cent

What is noticeable from that table is how weak the relationship is between success as a caretaker and success as a full-time coach. Coaches like Matthew Primus, Peter Rohde and Alan Joyce found success relatively easy as a caretaker but failed as a full-time appointee. Conversely Brett Ratten, Grant Thomas and Terry Wallace struggled as caretakers but were strong full-time coaches. The only one of those caretakers who accurately predicted their performance as a full-timer was Paul Roos.

So why is there such a weak relationship between caretaker success and full-time success? I suggest there are both tactical and emotional reasons for this difference.

The tactical reason is that caretaking is a relatively unnatural reflection of the strategic skills involved as a full-time coach. A caretaker is usually taking over a team that has operated for a long period of time under a defined game plan established by the previous head coach. The caretaker is accordingly limited to shaping that defined plan at the edges.

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Rhyce Shaw

(Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

Conversely a full-time coach is required to build a game plan for a team through preseason and into the matches proper. This can be a step too far for some caretaker coaches.

The emotional reasons stem from the mindset of a team at the time a coach is fired. While it is the coach who loses their job, it is natural for the players to feel a sense of responsibility for that sacking. This can create an unusual mental state in a team and can cause a caretaker to lead them to unexpected levels of performance. However, that heightened mental state will not last forever, which can cause a resulting loss of performance

Another reason the Kangaroos and Blues should not have appointed Teague and Shaw so promptly is that the clubs willfully narrowed their options by completing a coaching search in the middle of the season. Both clubs have stated that they did their due diligence in finalising those appointments, but I fail to see how that could have been the case – after all, completing a mid-season coaching search greatly limits the potential pool of candidates who can make a push for the role.

Head coaches are often selected from the current group of assistant coaches working within the AFL, but a mid-season hire can make life difficult for those assistants. Firstly, assistants sometimes face barriers to interviewing with prospective employers mid-season, as has recently been seen with Michael Voss at Port Adelaide. Secondly, even if they are allowed to interview elsewhere, the assistant coach is unlikely to be able to formulate as strong an application as they could due to the fact that they still have the primary focus of coaching their original club.

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The last reason that the clubs should have waited to appoint their respective coaches after the season is to minimise the implicit biases presented in reviewing a working caretaker. Both Carlton and North Melbourne were looking for a person capable of being the head coach of their club, but part of that review involved looking at a person who was actually doing that job. To ensure that the review of that coach could occur in the most logical, dispassionate manner, they should have completed their review at the end of the season. That would have given the clubs the best opportunity to objectively review all the evidence about the performance of their caretakers.

It may turn out that both Shaw and Teague were excellent appointments for their respective clubs, and there are certainly signs that they will be accomplished head coaches. However, that does not excuse North Melbourne and Carlton from their failures to heed the ghosts of caretakers past and their potentially winnowing of their coaching alternatives.