The AFL and NRL finals races are almost over and that usually means one thing: coach-sacking season.
Once this was a gruesome time when a lethal cocktail of ambition and disappointment proved poisonous for those coaches who suffered the consequences of their club’s poor performance in — everyone join in — “a results-oriented business”.
Yet, in the AFL, this coach-sacking season more resembles a scene from a corporate governance video than Game Of Thrones.
In his six years coaching Collingwood, Nathan Buckley has led a club with a burning ambition and notoriously impatient supporters to a succession of historically disastrous results.
Under Buckley, the Magpies have finished fourth, sixth, 11th, 12th, 12th and they currently sit 13th. No coach in VFL/AFL history has presided over a team that has continually descended or stagnated in his first six seasons.
No team has won fewer matches in each of five successive seasons as the Magpies have — a record it could ‘improve’ to six this year.
Upon taking the presidency 19 years ago, Eddie McGuire coined the term “only the best for Collingwood”, so you might expect Magpies fans to be storming the club with banners demanding “The Bucks Stops Here”.
Nathan Buckley may yet survive as Magpies coach despite a club review. (AAP: Julian Smith, File)
Instead there is unprecedented calm among those supporters still attending games while the Magpies conduct a “full review of operations”, including the board, administration, football department, cheer squad … everything, you assume, but the untouchable McGuire.
Even the mere possibility that Buckley could survive — as Offsiders panellist Caroline Wilson has predicted — despite a string of miserable seasons is at odds with the game’s once bloodthirsty culture. Partly, this is attributable to the realisation by supporters that in modern sport a coach’s performance is heavily dependent on others.
Support for Buckley suggests Pies are at fault
So the narrative has become that Buckley has been let down by those around him, whether that is Collingwood’s failure to embrace corporate governance, lack of boardroom succession planning, unwillingness to run recruiting processes, serial cronyism or the disruptive turnover of staff.
If you embrace this case — even after six years — then you join the growing school of thought that the coach is a far less influential figure than in the semi-professional days when the great mentors had an almost omnipotent presence at their clubs.
But there is an alternate view not often put forward, particularly by those enjoying the struggles of the game’s least popular franchise and spruiking Buckley’s retention: Collingwood’s administration, football management and recruiting could be deficient, even inept.
Despite these handicaps, Buckley might simply be the wrong man for the job. This is why the best clubs now run thorough searches to find the best coach or at least ensure succession does not create chaos.
Brad Scott appears to be in demand despite the Kangaroos’ on-field woes. (AAP: Tracey Nearmy, File)
At the same time, North Melbourne is reported to be struggling to retain the services of their coach Brad Scott who has been linked — if only by rumour — to both the Gold Coast and Collingwood.
Scott is a strong, confident and seemingly competent coach. But again, for those who grew up in the era of routine results-oriented coach sackings, it seems counterintuitive that a man without a strong finals record, and whose club now sits 16th, is in demand elsewhere, or even at his current club.
Again, this represents the AFL’s new reality, one entrenched by the draft/salary cap system that rewards the clubs who plunge the furthest during voluntary or enforced rebuilding stages. Scott is seen to be overseeing a successful rebuild. Never mind that this success is still merely theoretical.
Similarly, Carlton’s Brendon Bolton has been warmly embraced by Blues fans even as the club risks “winning” a fourth wooden spoon in 16 years. A club that once discarded premiership coaches like empty wine bottles after just a year or two of relative failure is for the first time implementing a contemporary list-building strategy.
But the lingering question is whether Bolton’s ability to scrap out respectable results with an ultra-defensive game plan while young players develop, and before reinforcements arrive, will translate into the results Carlton once expected.
Surely even in this amazingly patient environment, there is a time when results are expected; when a coach is not merely part of a “process” but also responsible for the bottom line.
Coaches always the centre of NRL’s blame game
In the NRL, the blame-sharing approach has not yet caught on.
Veteran coach Neil Henry’s plight at the Gold Coast seems a stark, old-fashioned version of laying blame at the coach’s feet — never mind the cultural problems he inherited or that he was lumbered with serially malcontent superstar Jarryd Hayne.
Perhaps the best response to those putting the club’s entire performance on Henry’s shoulders came after it was reported the coach was in trouble because he had lost the confidence of the players.
“What a load of shit,” Nathan Peats tweeted, providing a refreshingly concise analysis of his position.
At Canterbury, Des Hasler’s survival does not depend on administrators first taking a look in the mirror to identify their own role in the ambitious club’s miserable performance before weighing up Hasler’s liability.
Hasler is still at Belmore because it would cost the club $1 million to sack him — at least until the board believes they have someone better and signs the cheque.
On the surface, the AFL’s seemingly measured and more mature approach to analysing a coach’s performance seems superior.
There is, however, a disclaimer. A coach is now at the mercy of his club’s boardroom governance, administration, football department, assistant coaches, sports scientist, recruiters and, as ever, sheer dumb luck.
But that does not mean every coach is the right man for the job.
For more on the Titans coaching saga and a look at the major sports stories of the week, watch Offsiders with Gerard Whateley, Sunday 10:00am ABC TV.