There are days where watching local footy can be great for the soul. This Sunday just past was NOT one of those days.
I’m currently on the long-term injured list at Vic Metro Super Rules side, Melbourne, having had part of the discs in my lower back removed earlier this year. As with most competitively juiced sportspeople, watching from the sidelines is akin to pornography for me; you’d much rather be doing it than watching it. Suffice to say, I haven’t made it down to the club much this year as the guys toil away in their first season in Division One of the Super Rules competition.
I had no plans to pay a visit on the guys this round, but as the morning dawned sunny, still, somewhat on the side of ‘less-freezing-than-it-has-been’ and the fact that, on paper anyway, most of the AFL matches this particular Sunday had all the excitement and intensity of watching cement set, I figured it was time to ‘get around the boys’ at Melbourne.
It has been a tough year so far at Melbourne. Our Supers (read: ‘firsts’ if you’re unfamiliar with Super Rules club structures) had the perfect season in 2012, winning the Division Two premiership to cap off an undefeated season. Understandably, given age and family and work commitments, a good number of blokes felt that going out undefeated and with a flag was the perfect swansong. With the higher standard of opponent this season – given that we’ve been promoted to Division One – it’s been harder than in the past to keep guys motivated.
Such is life in most club footy settings, support can be thin on the ground and it proved to be especially true this day. With a number of the coaching staff indisposed or unavailable, what started out as a joke soon became a reality: I was asked to take on the coaching duties as we took on Marcellin Supers until our Masters coach could arrive (another magnificent quirk of Superrules footy: not all sides from the same club play at the same ground each week). So, until our man Swampy Maddox could take control of the magnetic board, the spacious grounds of the Marist Brothers in Bulleen was the stage upon which my coaching insanity would debut.
I hastily set up my processes (a coffee and a toilet visit (and not in that order)), checked my structures (Who’s turned up? Who hasn’t?) and before you could do a walk-by interview with Cameron Ling, it was game time.
In coaching – as with anything these days – knowledge is power. With this in mind, it probably would have a wise move to know that we only had 16 players available on the day (note made for Wednesday night’s review: GET 18 BLOKES TO TURN UP!).
I should also have probably had a bit of a closer look at our opposition line-up that day. If I had have done so, my forward scouting would have learned that Marcellin were coached by former Hawthorn toiler Mark Graham and boasted a line-up including Richie Vandenberg, Daniel Harford, Joel Smith and – possibly for shits and giggles given that he moved with all the grace and athletic ability of a silverback gorilla – Paul Salmon (I’m kidding! The bloke’s pushing 50 and has had more operations than a US Navy Seal. I’m amazed he’s even upright).
Yup, no sweat… my first game as coach and I come up against a side with a lazy one thousand-plus games experience at the elite level… we’re two blokes down… what could possibly go wrong?
The first quarter went well. We gave a good contest out of the middle. I can say this because the ball came back to the centre quite a bit in that first stanza. Our centre clearance wins added fuel to the growing fire to the myth of the importance of winning the ball out of the centre, but I digress. We were able to move the ball quickly into our forward line and did a fantastic job of winning the contested footy, but with a two player advantage, the Marcellin lads stacked their backline and repelled the ball swiftly forward and the waiting hands of Joel Smith or Paul Salmon quicker than you can say “Bugger me, Joel Smith is THAT tall?”
Given our ability to win contested ball and keep it off the opposition, I sniffed a bit of the 2005 Paul Roos and Rossy Lyon Bloods about this mob in my charge. My address at the first break focused on the positives: we’re winning the ball. Let’s just chip it around coming out of the back line, keep possession through the midfield and then work it closer to goal and WE’VE GOT THIS MOB!
We tirelessly worked the ball forward, building and building a successful attack only to come unstuck with inaccurate kicking for goal. Marcellin’s kick-ins were like training drills; the ball coming out of our forward line with a degree of difficulty on par with a drunken sailor at a knock-shop finding a bed for an hour.
By the time Swampy showed up, it was clearly in the best interests of the membership, sponsors and the board that I step aside. My methods weren’t right for the time and place we found ourselves in; Caroline Wilson’s incessant observations that my position was untenable had proven correct, as had Robbo’s view that the ongoing saga of my future as coach was an unnecessary distraction for the playing group. I addressed the guys – heavy of heart – at the long break; telling them that, although I was stepping down, I believed in them, that I wanted to see them succeed and that it wasn’t about me. I wanted them to be the best footballers and people that they could be, and that I would be watching them from afar (read: the car park).
There was no hastily convened presser, no media pack hovering around the rooms, no flashbulbs popping or the clicking of cameras recording my final moments as interim coach of the Melbourne Superrules Football Club Supers side. There was just the un-remarkable handing over of the whiteboard to Swampy and an update on who was playing where.
All jokes aside, it is only in seeing some players close-up that it dawns on you how little you understand or know about how tough it can be to excel in AFL/VFL football; kind of what Donald Rumsfeld once referred to as ‘unknown knowns’ – you have no idea just how much you don’t know about some things. Smith, Harford and Vandenberg hardly raised a sweat, but knew exactly where to be to get the ball – in much the same way that mere mortals know where to find their car keys. Their use of the ball is still just as sharp, the competitive juices are still there (Richie plays angry when he needs to, don’t worry) and while the big Fish is not exactly at playing weight, how anybody even got near him to spoil in a one-on-one contest is a study in athletic ability and (possibly) quantum physics at the same time.
As far as Melbourne goes, well, we put in a good account of ourselves and it’s what I love about these guys. They weren’t fussed who had an opposition jumper on that day, they cared only for having a crack and getting a kick or two. And have a crack they did. Two blokes down for the majority of the day so no opportunity to give guys a spell, things rarely going right and an opposition that kept their foot on our throats all day, I’d wager that they wouldn’t want it any other way. Except perhaps to see a few extra blokes in Melbourne jumpers… or maybe have Kouta, Wayne Campbell, Rob Harvey or Wayne Carey have a crack at Super Rules footy with Melbourne!