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Opinion

Do clubs' favourite sons ever make good coaches?

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16th July, 2021
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As the AFL’s 2021 season comes closer to the pointy end, the chatter around coaches for next year, especially among the non-finalists, will intensify.

One of the issues that springs to mind is whether clubs should seek a favourite son – a coach who has played for the club – or seek an outsider, as in a coach who at no time played for the club.

In looking at this I have examined premiership coaches from the last 50 years, from 1970 to 2020 inclusive, in terms of whether the coach has been a player at the club in question or whether from outside.

Of the 51 premierships awarded between 1970 and 2020, 33 or close to 65 per cent have been won by clubs with coaches who have not played at the club. Eighteen or 35 per cent have been won by clubs with home-grown coaches.

Breaking down the data by decade I find the highest proportion of premierships won by home-grown coaches was eight out of ten in the 1970s.

This was on the back of premiership success by Ron Barassi (1970), John Kennedy (1971 and 1976), John Nicholls (1972), Tom Hafey (1973 and 1974), David Parkin (1978) and Alex Jesaulenko (1979). The exception was Ron Barassi in 1975 and 1977 having never played with North Melbourne.

Ron Barassi in 1964

(Getty Images)

The 1970s were the heyday of the sentimental attachment to coaches who had played with their clubs, at least among the premiership coaches.

In subsequent decades the numbers drop off considerably. The 1980s had three premierships won by home-grown coaches, the 1990s three, 2000s three and the 2010s just one.

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As an additional exercise, I look at coaches who have only won single premierships. First to note is that over the last 50 years there have only been 11: John Nicholls (1972), Alex Jesaulenko (1979), Tony Jewell (1980), Robert Walls (1987), Mark Williams (2004), Paul Roos (2005), John Worsfold (2006), Chris Scott (2011), John Longmire (2012), Luke Beveridge (2016) and Adam Simpson (2018).

Of these 11 coaches, eight or 73 per cent played for the club they coached to the ultimate success. The exceptions here are Chris Scott, Adam Simpson and John Longmire. Mark Williams is categorised as playing for Port Adelaide even though it was not the AFL entity.

Two points to note. First is that overwhelmingly, successful coaches in the AFL over the last 50 years have led their sides to the holy grail on more than one occasion.

Secondly, however, of the coaches that have led their sides to only one premiership, these are strongly home grown.

Luke Beveridge

(Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

It appears that the favourite sons have not been able to build dynasties with their clubs, and that these coaches have either left or been dispensed with, with the latter suggesting that despite favoured son status clubs having been ruthless in their decision making.

I also looked at coaching performance over the last 50 years among the runners up. Of the 51 runners up between 1970 and 2020 inclusive, 39 have been coached by outsiders or 76.5 per cent, compared to 12 or 23.5 per cent of sides coached by home-grown talent.

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Thus, compared to winning coaches, losing sides have been even more dominated by outsiders. Outsiders are more likely to be unsuccessful than successful, at least in terms of winning premierships.

On balance though, it appears that premiership success is more strongly correlated with being an outsider than a home-grown coach.

Arguably, outsiders bring different perspectives, experience and insights. Also they are less likely perhaps to be weighed down by expectations and baggage that accompanies a home-town hero.

If we take Collingwood as an example, since 1970, premiership success has come only from the outsiders Leigh Matthews and Mick Malthouse.

A number of home-grown legends, notably Bob Rose, Nathan Buckley, Tony Shaw, Neil Mann and Murray Weideman, were not able to deliver the holy grail.

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