Neil Who?

When Neil Craig was appointed to the senior coaching role at the end of 2004, the common reaction outside of South Australia was “Neil who?”.

He was a man who did not follow the usual path to AFL coaching. He had no AFL playing experience, although he did play over 300 games in the SANFL. He had a short and semi successful stint as coach of SANFL side Norwood in the early 90’s, after which he moved on to work with the Australian cycling team at the AIS.

In 1997 he joined the coaching panel at the Adelaide Football Club as fitness advisor and assistant coach under Malcolm Blight. It was during this time under Blight that Craig’s undeniable impact in shaping the modern game began. His fitness regime in the premiership years of 1997 and 1998 has become the stuff of legend, with many attributing Adelaide’s amazing finals record during that time to his work.

After this period of success, Neil fell away from the AFL scene, spending another 12 months in cycling in 2000 before Adelaide again called him back as assistant to Gary Ayres. In 2002 it was rumoured that he was all but confirmed as coach of West Coast, before removing himself from the race. The move sparked much curiosity as it was unusual to see such loyalty to one club in the modern era of football.

In 2004 Gary Ayres’ tenure as senior coach at Adelaide came to an end and Neil Craig ascended to the senior role first as caretaker, before being confirmed at the end of the season. It was a curious appointment when such established names as Terry Wallace and Rodney Eade were available, but Neil Craig set to work on making an immediate impact on the football world.

In 2005 he took a team many experts predicted to finish last to the top of the table, and his methods became the talk of the AFL. He was a pioneer in the use of GPS technology, as well introducing the collection of various new statistics. He was the first to adopt new leadership models; instigate leadership teams rather than a sole captain; encourage players to interact with fans on the boundary line after games; and introduce a program of open communication and 2 way constructive criticism amongst the playing group and coaching staff. All of these innovations are now commonplace on the AFL scene.

Unfortunately however, his reputation for off field innovation was mirrored with a perception that he lacked flair and influence on game day. The football god’s did not smile kindly on Neil Craig, particularly in finals.

In 2005 despite dominating the season, Adelaide were bundled out of the finals after a Ricciuto brain snap in the final round left them leaderless in the first week, resulting in a loss against the Saints and an eventual preliminary final exit.

In 2006, Craig again had his team flying until the last month of the season when a raft of injuries and a mystery illness robbed him of several key players, resulting in another preliminary final exit despite finishing the minor round in second place.

In 2007 & 2009 finals hopes were dashed in games where Adelaide jumped to early leads but allowed opposition teams to snatch victories in the dying moments, and the inevitable criticism of Craig’s rigid match day structure and lack of flexibility began to mount.

In 2010 an Adelaide side which held so much promise crashed to the bottom half of the ladder with a 0-6 start, and with this situation getting worse in 2011 Neil Craig would never again have the opportunity to prove the doubters wrong.

The way in which he exited this week says a lot about the man. He leaves as humbly and inconspicuously as the day he arrived, without a bad word for the club or its supporters, and expressing gratitude for the opportunity to coach the Adelaide Football Club. In the absence of a Premiership, few will acknowledge Neil Craig’s legacy at the club and in the game of Australian Rules in general. In a macabre way this seems fitting though, ‘low key’ is just the way Neil would like it – a true servant of the game, in every sense of the word.

 

About Ben Footner

I’m tragic Crows fan, avid lawn bowler, public librarian and father of 2 little kiddies. Sometimes I also find time amongst all that to squeeze out the occasional article for the Almanac.

Comments

  1. John Butler says:

    Ben, the footy biz is always in thrall to the past great players.

    If you weren’t a player of prominence it counts against you for many.

    Carlton were quick to offload Wayne Brittain for a ‘name’ coach when they (read Jack) got in strife.

    The interesting thing will be to watch how Craig’s ‘permanent staff’ status works out.

  2. Brad Carr says:

    I think most supporters of other clubs viewed Craig with respect, and (I think) some degree of fondness. He was innovative, as you describe, but also fairly open and insightful in his press conferences, and I can’t think of anything about him that came across as antagonistic.

    Loved his comment after a game a few years back, when the Crows had got away with playing ordinariy football for a few weeks and then been shown up a week later: “Winning masks a multitude of sins” – it was a very honest assessment, and almost a turn of phrase worthy of one of Mick Malthouse’s wacky moments.

    I empathise with the guy, and think football will be poorer without him.

  3. Alovesupreme says:

    Ben,
    I think your focus on Craig’s ill-luck is spot on. It’s in ironic contrast to Blighty’s back-to-back premierships, where I’d argue pretty strongly that Adelaide enjoyed remarkable good luck through the finals; the Crows in both 1997 and 1998 had a series of lucky breaks provided by the quirks of the then finals system, and their good fortune against the Bulldogs in the 1997 Prelim, and North’s abominable kicking in the first half of the 1998 GF.
    I think most will agree with your (and Brad’s) complimentary assessment of Neil Craig’s career. His press conferences are notable for his uncomplaining acceptance of responsibility and his transparent assessment of his team’s performances.
    I’d also endorse JB’s observation; the lack of a celebrated playing career gives a coach minimal credit in the bank, when a period of under-performance by the players has the critics – internal and external – demanding human sacrifice.

  4. Well said by all. Just a note on Neil Craig as a player. He is not highly rated nationally because he did not play in Victoria before the AFL expansion. But as Ben notes he played 321 games for Norwood, Sturt and North Adelaide in the SANFL. As an ex-Croweater who saw a lot of him, I can say that he was an outstanding footballer who would have excelled in Victoria. He played in 2 Norwood premierships and was BOG in their 1978 win. He played for SA 11 times, and captained SA at State of Origin when it was a very high standard competition. He was quick, highly skilled and had a great ‘footy brain’. Of the current bunch of AFL coaches I would say that only 4 were definitely better footballers – Voss, Hird, Ratten and McKenna. Neil Craig was equal to or better than the rest.

  5. Skip of Skipton says:

    Alovesupreme. The Crows ‘luck’ in ’97 wasn’t just the Footscray Prelim. Try the week before against Geelong. Under the current and fair final 8 system the match would have been a Geelong home final. In ’97 it was a Crows home game. Low scoring armwrestle. Colbert’s spectacular and absolutely legit pack chest mark that was denied 20m out dead in front? Buddha’s running goal that was called ‘touched’ by the goal ump despite the fact Nigel Smart was a good metre behind the line and only dejectedly fisted it thinking it was a goal?
    Then to ’98. They finished 5th. They were thrashed by Melbourne in their first final yet were allowed to live another day. What a pathetic and absurd Final 8 system that was in the ’90s. Carlton in ’99 finished 6th and were thrashed by 80 odd points in their first final by Brisbane, yet got to live on. Then upset the Bombers in the prelim, denying a classic match up with North in that years GF. Pffft. A pox on Wayne Jackson.

  6. Skip of Skipton says:

    If Neil Craig was a better footballer than Rodney Eade(quadruple premiership player), Mark Harvey(triple premiership player), Chris Scott(dual premiership/rising star winner) John Longmire(Premiership/Coleman medallist at 19), John Worsfold(dual premiersip captain, badass), I will bear my arse in Bourke St whilst eating my hat. Honourable mentions to Malthouse, Lyon, Hardwick and Brad Scott also.

  7. No way of fairly judging I guess Skip. Would be interested in other Almanackers views if they saw a lot of SA football in the 70’s and 80’s. South and West Australians watched a lot of VFL, but Victorians had no reason to look outside their own backyard – so they lack a reference point. Your ratings mention a lot of what they won, rather than how individually brilliant they were. All were solid team players – which equipped them as coaches – because they had to learn the game more than being blessed with great talent. All were good but so was Craig (very good in fact). Mark Harvey is the only one on your list I am tempted to relent to you on, because I remember his versatility and big game performances. I stick by saying Craig would have been the equal of the others with a year or two in VFL. He was a ‘hard nut’ – my observation in those days was that the skilful but ‘softer’ SA players tended to struggle at VFL. Blight was the man who broke the mould and established SA footballing credibility in Melbourne. Followed by the ‘real’ State of Origin blockbusters of the 80’s before the expanded AFL and Malthouse ruined it.

  8. Alovesupreme says:

    Skip,
    I actually had in mind Geelong’s “unfair” treatment as another benefit to the 1997 Crows, even though I made specific reference to the Prelim. Final. They finished 2nd and had North Melbourne as opponents, on the ground with North played most of the season, and in a gluepot, iirc. For that losst hey then copped Adelaide in Adelaide as you reminded readers.

  9. Skip of Skipton says:

    PeterB, how many B&Fs did Neil Craig win? Magarey Medal votes etc? He was obviously a good footballer, 300 odd games in the SANFL tells me that. I just can’t have him as a ‘better’ footballer than those i mentioned.

    Alovesupreme, yes Geelong(2nd) played North(7th) at the ‘G in the first round of finals in ’97. It rained all night. Carey kicked 7. Then it was off to Adelaide to be sacrificed for the greater good of a national competition. Thanks Hayden Kennedy.

  10. Ben Footner says:

    Regarding luck, it all evens out in the long run.

    Adelaide’s last decade has more than made up for the lucky runs of 97 &98. 2006 in particular the one that got away for Craig, with Hentschel blowing out his knee in an injury compared to a car crash victim, McLeod getting a bursa on his foot, and Ricciuto coming down with Parvo virus. I mean come on, a bursa & Parvo virus?? The most obscure ‘footy god’ curses I’ve ever seen!

    I think the thing that made Neil unique as a coach was that he took a ‘whole club’ approach to his coaching. My wife and I would regularly see him out in the crowd chatting to fans as Adelaide warmed up, even this year when he was far from a popular figure. There was something about him that made you feel comfortable also – like no matter how bad it got, Craigy would turn it around. In the end that was probably part of the problem, perhaps the players became so comfortable with Craigy’s structures that they lost the desire to challenge themselves.

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