Alastair Clarkson was the best coach in the game, but clubs shouldn't walk blindly towards him for his previous achievements. There have been examples…
In the lead-up to the weekend’s game against the West Coast Eagles, GWS Giants caretaker coach Mark McVeigh insisted that they are “not a broken club”, despite their poor start to the season and speculation surrounding its since-departed coach Leon Cameron.
McVeigh, who has been at the club since 2015, officially took over the reins following Cameron’s departure after last week’s loss to Carlton, and vowed to put a new spin on the struggling club which had only made a Grand Final three years ago.
The ex-Essendon tagger made a statement at the selection table, making several changes to the side beaten by the Blues, with the likes of Nick Haynes, Tim Taranto, Lachie Ash, Lachie Whitfield, Conor Stone and Braydon Preuss dropping out with injury or illness.
They joined an already lengthy injury list which also included ex-captain Phil Davis, Jacob Hopper, Brent Daniels and Daniel Lloyd.
Additionally, two of his former Essendon teammates, James Hird and Dean Solomon, joined a revamped coaching panel with the former returning to coaching in some form for the first time since the fallout from the supplements scandal saw him depart as Bombers coach in 2015.
Solomon had been there and done that, being the Gold Coast Suns’ caretaker coach for the final three matches of the 2017 season after Rodney Eade was sacked just short of completing his three-year tenure on the holiday strip.
McVeigh is the second ex-Essendon identity to sit in the Giants’ hot seat, even if it is only on an interim basis, after the legendary Kevin Sheedy led the club during its infant years in 2012 and 2013.
Despite the changes to the coaching staff during the week, the mood at the club remained upbeat, and the 41-year-old said that he’s taken over a joint “that’s got fundamentally some really good stuff going on” and that he would look to shake a few things up.
The impact that he has made on the club took very little time to come to fruition, with the Giants registering their highest score of the season (21.12 (138)) as they thrashed the last-placed West Coast Eagles by 52 points at Giants Stadium on Sunday.
It was also their equal-highest score since round 9, 2019, which coincidentally came the day following a federal election; on that occasion, they booted a score of 20.18 (138) against bottom-placed Carlton.
It is the biggest win by a caretaker coach in his debut AFL match since Paul Roos oversaw the Sydney Swans’ 77-point thrashing of Fremantle at the SCG in round 13, 2002.
Mark Harvey also oversaw a ten-goal win by the Brisbane Lions against GWS in 2013, though that came in his second stint as a caretaker coach after serving the same role (and then being appointed permanently) at Fremantle after Chris Connolly resigned in 2007.
The Giants were always going to start favourites against an Eagles side that have been plagued with injuries and COVID-19 protocols over the first half of the season.
When co-captain Toby Greene kicked a pair of goals inside 30 seconds within the first five minutes, it was clear that the Giants had come out to play; further goals to Tom Green and James Peatling saw the Giants out to a 25-point lead before the Eagles even scored.
Another major surprise saw regular forward Harry Himmelberg switched to defence, presumably to cover for the absence of intercept king Nick Haynes, but he still managed to kick a goal aided by a 50-metre penalty coming out of defence in the second quarter.
Their victory was never in doubt, booting 14 goals to half-time and finishing with 21 as they played with a newfound freedom and rediscovered the flair that had been missing for the majority of the season.
It was their third win for the season and moves them up to 14th on the ladder with a 3-7 record, and though the club could still mathematically make the finals, it must be the furthest thing from Mark McVeigh’s mind as they look towards building for the future.
History is also against him, with no caretaker coach having guided any club to the finals in the same year that they assumed the role in the AFL era.
But to suggest that the Giants are in rebuilding mode would be harsh, given they still have plenty of experience and talent on their playing list, including Phil Davis, Stephen Coniglio, Toby Greene, Callan Ward and Adam Kennedy – all of whom played in the first ever GWS side back in round 1, 2012.
All except Davis (injured) played against the Eagles, while Lachie Whitfield, Josh Kelly and Tim Taranto all debuted in 2013, 2014 and 2017 respectively and have developed into consistent players for the club.
In Davis’ absence, Sam Taylor has deputized well at fullback, and you only have to watch his shutdown effort on Tom Hawkins in round 21 last year just to see why he’s on the verge of becoming the club’s number one defender when the inaugural co-captain eventually retires.
Coniglio and Greene, both of whom had quiet matches against Carlton last weekend, returned to form with the former racking up 36 disposals with a 92% efficiency rate, and the latter’s two early goals setting the tone for the rest of the match.
Tom Green is also starting to become a consistent player in the midfield, and could so easily have won the Rising Star award last year if he hadn’t missed the tail-end of last season due to a hamstring and arm injury.
While Mark McVeigh would be happy to register his first win as an AFL coach (albeit in a caretaker capacity), he knows there will still be plenty of interest and intrigue as to who will become the club’s next permanent coach from 2023.
Speculation surrounding a possible coaching comeback by Alastair Clarkson refuses to die, while James Hird has also been mentioned as an option despite his time at Essendon coming to a controversial end at the height of that club’s supplements scandal in 2015.
McVeigh himself could also put his hand up for the role, and if the Giants’ performances somewhat dramatically improve over the second half of the season, then he is not to be counted out of calculations.
Having guided the Giants to a win against the bottom-placed club in the AFL, he will face an almighty task this Saturday when the Giants travel north to Brisbane to face the second-placed Lions, who are emerging as serious premiership contenders this year.
The Lions will be eager to bounce back at home after suffering just their second loss of the season, when they went down to Hawthorn in a thriller in Launceston also on Sunday.
They’ve won three of their past four matches against the Giants, before which the men in orange won six meetings in a row, though this came during a period in which they started emerging as genuine finals contenders while the Lions wallowed near the bottom of the ladder.
Even if McVeigh continues to impress in the twelve matches he has remaining this season as part of his coaching audition, the Giants may not want to appoint him on a full-time basis, if recent history is anything to go by.
In the past decade or so, the likes of David Teague (Carlton), Rhyce Shaw (North Melbourne) and Matthew Primus (Port Adelaide) transitioned from caretaker to full-time coaches after successful auditions but neither would last more than two years, for varying reasons.
Teague (became caretaker in 2019) was controversially sacked at the end of his second full season in 2021, Shaw (2019) resigned after just one full season in 2020 and Primus (2010) was axed with four rounds remaining in 2012 after continued dismal on-field performances.
This transition is something Brett Ratten has experienced twice, first at Carlton when he took over from Denis Pagan in 2007 and led the club until the end of 2012, and then at St Kilda when he took over from Alan Richardson in 2019 and is now in his third season at the helm.
He took the Blues to multiple finals series in 2009-11, while also having to deal with the departure of its full-forward Brendan Fevola in that period, and against all odds led the Saints to a semi-final in 2020 where they lost to the eventual premiers Richmond at Metricon Stadium.
In between, Ratten served as an assistant coach at Hawthorn, where he learnt his trade under Alastair Clarkson and was a part of their hat-trick of flags between 2013-15; this experienced readied him for his second chance in the AFL coaching caper which he is experiencing now.
On the flipside, two caretaker coaches who went on to achieve plenty of success include Paul Roos and Neil Craig, who took charge of the Sydney Swans and Adelaide Crows midway through the 2002 and 2004 seasons respectively.
After people power led to his permanent appointment, Roos led the Swans to an unlikely home preliminary final in 2003, then lifted the club onto the premiership dais two years later after facing criticism in the first half of the season over his coaching style and tactics.
He handed over to John Longmire at the end of the 2010 season and to this day the Swans continue to be a consistent football team, though the club did watch September from the sidelines in 2019 and 2020.
The success the Sydney Swans have enjoyed over the past two decades wouldn’t have happened had the board had their way and appointed former Western Bulldogs coach Terry Wallace to the role at the end of the 2002 season.
It proved to be a sliding doors moment not just in Swans history, but also the AFL, as Wallace then went on to coach Richmond for limited success between 2005-09, bowing out halfway through his fifth season at Tigerland in 2009.
Though it was during his tenure at Punt Road Oval where he oversaw the debuts of Jack Riewoldt, Trent Cotchin and Shane Edwards, each of whom went on to play in the club’s 2017, 2019 and 2020 premierships.
Craig, on the other hand, saw a much improved Crows side finish in the top two in 2005 and 2006, only for the West Coast Eagles to deny them that coveted Grand Final berth in both years, before himself stepping down with six rounds remaining in the 2011 season.
Back on topic to finish off, and if the Giants’ performance against the West Coast Eagles on Sunday is anything to go by, then not only has Mark McVeigh boosted his chances of becoming the club’s next senior coach, there might still be a pulse in the Big Big Sound this season.
After the clash against the Brisbane Lions, the club will enjoy a bye before they face North Melbourne, the Western Bulldogs, Collingwood, Hawthorn and Port Adelaide followed by a rematch against the Lions in Canberra in round 18.
Beyond that, there are also rematches against Carlton, the Sydney Swans, Bulldogs and Fremantle on either side of a clash against Essendon in round 21, a match that promises intrigue given the Bombers flavour in the Giants’ coaching box.
Even if the Giants can manage to win most of their remaining matches with a playing list that is far from dispirited, it might not be enough for McVeigh to win the senior coaching role permanently – or might it?
There’s still plenty to play out before the end of the season, and if the club hasn’t made up its mind on who they would prefer as their next senior coach, then it promises to be a major subplot come the off-season.