Politics, power and emotion in The Club

by Phil Dimitriadis

Club politics do not always sit comfortably with the ideas of the coach and his methods of disciplining errant players. In The Club, prize recruit Geoff Hayward is a protected species according to President Ted Parker because he paid an extra ten thousand dollars out of his own pocket to ensure that the club obtained the player’s signature. This compels the president to feel that he has some weight in the way the team should be coached and whether the failed recruit should be dropped to the reserves.

The coach Laurie Holden is sure that Hayward does not have what it takes to make the grade. The tension between Laurie and Ted around the issue of Hayward is revealing in the sense that it posits the delicate balances of power within football clubs and the need for constant negotiation by the stakeholders of power in a football club. Laurie resents the fact that Ted has never played the game and Ted feels that Laurie does not respect his role of club president. When Ted conspires with the other selectors to ensure that Hayward is not dropped a confrontation and distortion of allegiances and role-specific expectations ensues. Williamson portrays the dilemma accurately in this scene:

LAURIE: You told Jock and Tony that Geoff Hayward wasn’t to be dropped.

TED: I didn’t tell them any such thing. I expressed an opinion that he shouldn’t be dropped and they happened to agree with me. Aren’t I allowed to express an opinion? Am I supposed to go around this place with adhesive tape over my mouth. I might have known that Geoff Hayward was at the bottom of all this. What have you all got against him? He’s struggling for form at the moment but he’s an absolute champion. What have you got against him?

LAURIE: Nothing. He’s playing badly and should be dropped to the reserves.

TED: That’s your opinion, but the other two selectors happen to agree with me. Tough luck. Don’t try and make a conspiracy out of that. In my opinion it’s mo wonder the lad’s a bit out of touch. The team’s made him feel as welcome as a blowfly at a butcher’s picnic. (Williamson, 1978, p.12)

Fiction and reality collided over a decade later when the Brisbane Bears faced a similar scenario with the recruitment of Warwick Capper from Sydney. Failed tycoon Christopher Skase was president, former actor Paul Cronin was chief executive and former Hawthorn star Peter Knights was the frustrated coach. Capper had joined Brisbane at the beginning of 1988 to lift the profile of the fledgling and unfashionable Bears, who were only into their second season in the then VFL.

Capper was recruited to play the roles of promoter and star player in Brisbane. When his form tailed off after a promising beginning Knights wanted him dropped, but met with fierce opposition from Cronin and his cronies who had made it known that ‘certain players’ were not to be omitted from the team regardless of their poor form. Knights found this position untenable and pleaded with Skase to talk sense to Cronin, who Knights felt had little idea about football club culture. Skase backed Knights and pulled rank on Cronin, but barely a year later Knights was sacked by Skase and Cronin.

The vastly different perceptions of grassroots football culture and the idea that football should be part of the entertainment package is revealed in the fact that Knights was sacked four days after Skase unveiled a $4.9 million dollar lighting system at the Bears then home ground, Carrara on Queensland’s Gold Coast. According to Ross:

The 12-goal loss to Geelong under the expensive brand new lights before a showbiz crowd on Saturday was particularly galling to the owners…the lights went out for coach Peter Knights. With a year of his contract still to run, and just seven games left to play this season, the private owners of the club summarily sacked him. Board members Christopher Skase, Paul Cronin and Des Brooks have not released reasons for Knights’ abrupt termination, but obviously the team’s poor playing record has something to do with it. (In Ross (Ed), 1996, p.331)

The fashion of private ownership challenged anachronistic football club principles in ways that were foreseen by Williamson in The Club. The tensions between entrepreneurs and football people became apparent in the play through the characters of Parker and administrator Gerry Cooper. Parker could not play the game well but compensated by becoming a successful businessman who could wield an influence on and off the field. His love for the club is a primary motivation that parallels with his low self-esteem and compensatory megalomania. He wants to be remembered as the president who led the club when they finally broke their premiership drought and cannot understand why his power is continually questioned by those that played the game.

In reality, people like Cronin and Ern Clarke at Collingwood suffered similarly tense relationships with their respective coaches Peter Knights and Murray Weidemann. Yet football clubs need money so the ‘football types’ do often need suffer the opinions of amateurs so the club can remain viable. Entrepreneurs like Parker and Cronin know this so they push the boundaries to test how influential they can be. If they are successful, they will get to share in success that their playing skills could not let them attain. They will be part of the historical role call that associates their tenures with a premiership year and the need to have a place in history could be seen as a powerful motivating factor in their intentions, both to feed their egos and to counterbalance the failure to share in this glory as players.

Gerry Cooper is an administrator who is not passionate about the club or the game. In some football people’s views this makes him appear contemptible. How could he dare work in such a traditional environment and not give a damn? Gerry’s main forte is mediation, problem solving and ensuring that the club makes a profit. In a way he is probably the most objective character in this play because he is doing his job without being swayed by the emotion that interferes with the decisions made by Jock, Ted, Laurie, Danny and Geoff. And yet he is portrayed as one of the most ungrateful and slippery characters of the play at its end. Williamson writes:

GERRY: I don’t love the Club and I don’t particularly like the game and that might make me an oily weasel in your eyes, but I’m the best football administrator in the country and you’re only the second best coach, so don’t count on being able to return that photo for a long while.

LAURIE: Get out of here, Gerry, or I’ll bloody well take you apart. (Williamson, 1978, p.67)

The contrasting expressions between Gerry and Coach Laurie speak volumes of the distinction between football people and career administrators. Gerry has defended his territory quite reasonably in the circumstances and Laurie can only retort with the threat of violence. This scene indicates the complex relationship between emotions and business that football still struggles to reconcile more than thirty years later. Gerry may be a ‘weasel’ in some respects but he is sensible and pragmatic. Football clubs need people like this to balance out the emotional outpouring from players, fans, coaches and the media, otherwise football clubs would tend to implode much more easily. That is perhaps why the role of chief executive is now seen as being so vital in the real world of AFL today. Williamson possibly realised that clubs need a figurehead who will not lose their head in times of crisis and reality has followed the lead that fiction proposed in this context.

Most AFL chief executives today have not played the game at the highest level and are brought in with specific skills like negotiating, marketing and the ability to balance the books. This is another reason why The Club remains pertinent as a slice of realist dramatic fiction. It was ahead of its time in terms of having footy as the backdrop, yet it is timeless in its analysis of how people seek and protect their power within the prism of institutions, like football clubs.   

 

About Phillip Dimitriadis

Carer/Teacher/Writer. Author of Fandemic: Travels in Footy Mythology. World view influenced by Johnny Cash, Krishnamurti, Larry David, Toni Morrison and Billy Picken.

Comments

  1. Great stuff again, Phil. I think it’s time I watched The Club again, despite the fact that I’m not sure I’m ready to see Rene Kink walking around in nothing but, and then losing, a towel.

  2. Malby Dangles says:

    Terrific article. I’ve always disliked the Gerry character but your analysis of him and his interaction with the club is very interesting.

  3. Razor sharp analysis, Phil. And gee, didn’t Williamson get it spot on considering how that Capper situation played out?

    My one reservation about your insights was the need for a Gerry type at each club. Sure, you need a non-emotional type to take a step back every now and then, but you’d hope the type you get could do it without being so duplicitous.

  4. Phil Dimitriadis says:

    Gigs, Kink’s crack is a little distracting. I read the play before I got to see the movie and the play is much better because it allows one to imagine the characters as real people. The portrayals in the movie are borderline caricatures and I think this detracts from a great story.

    Cheers Dalby and Peter. Gerry is a fascinating character. He is unlikable, but the more I thought about the play the more I realized that he was in a no-win situation. Factions exist from the highest echelons to the local under 10s. People who have played really like to be in control and that is probably why club presidents, vice-presidents and secretaries were invariably ex-players up until the 1990s.

    Gerry is duplicitous, but I wonder if he needs to be in order to keep the peace while protecting his own career. I reckon there are more Gerry’s in footy clubs today than ever before. We might not like them, but clubs might need them, lest they get too carried away with the emotional side of sport that can overwhelm the sanest of us.

  5. Peter Baulderstone says:

    Really interesting stuff. Thanks Phil.
    Made me think about the motives of Presidents with a public profile to promote like Eddie and Brayshaw, versus the successful but low profile business people like Cransberg at the Eagles and Colin Cooper at Geelong.
    Even more interesting is the private ownership issue. In big time sport like the EPL it can be for profit like the Glazers, but often there is a fair bit of ego involved.
    In Australia where the $’s are much smaller it has to be all ego and ‘toys for boys’ with characters like Clive Palmer, Tony Sage and Nathan Tinkler. Without knowing the detail, it appears to me the ASL is inherently unstable. There is not enough local fan or TV dollars to attract or retain quality players. So the ASF prostitutes itself to egomaniacs like the above, but then has to put up with their prima donna spats periodically.
    Thank God AFL has the fan base to keep that sort of lunacy at arms length, post Skase and Edelsten.

  6. Jeff Dowsing says:

    Agree Peter – and the NBL is another example of a sport here that is between a rock and a hard place so far as private ownership. The transient nature of the clubs has almost destroyed it. We even had the farcical situation of a club (South Dragons) having the owner pull out the rug after winning the title. And more recently Seamus McPeake infuriating Tigers fans by overstepping his role.

    Great essay too Phil, btw. The Club should be remade properly – although finding actors to do the bizzo like Hopkins, Thompson, Howard, Cassell & Gra Gra would be nigh impossible.

  7. John Butler says:

    Great stuff Phil.

    I always leave your pieces until I have time to digest them properly. There’s much to ruminate on.

    Thinking Collingwood supporters. Another stereotype exploded. :)

  8. watt price tully says:

    Loved the article. Wonderful considered opinion, thank you.

  9. Rick Kane says:

    Hi Phil

    Terrific piece. I have attached a PhD that examines Corporate Governance in AFL Clubs. You may find it of interest. http://wallaby.vu.edu.au/adt-VVUT/uploads/approved/adt-VVUT20070426.122146/public/01front.pdf

    While passion will be the eternal flame of footy fans no matter their role from President to Mascot, it is becoming increasingly more difficult for AFL Clubs to operate in a manner described in The Club and your essay.

    The Governance Model is sweeping through the world of Non For Profit organizations. Robert Fitzgerald authored the impressive Productivity Commission’s Report on Non For Profits and it, likewise, is a good read to understand recommendations to government to sharpen its expectations on how NFPs are administered and taxed. These recommendations have bearings on the AFL and its clubs.

    I do not mean to suggest that wooly headed thinking will be eradicated from Club decision making (particularly around its core assets, its players) but there are stricter legal guidelines for Boards, CEOs and staff than 10 years ago, let alone back in the day.

    Cheers

  10. Rick Kane says:

    http://vuir.vu.edu.au/1433/1/Foreman.pdf

    Here is the rest of the PhD. Cheers

  11. Phil Dimitriadis says:

    Thanks Rick,

    will have read and let you know what I think.

    Cheers

  12. Great stuff as always Phil. I love your analysis. The Club holds a special place in my heart as being the first premiership I saw Collingwood win on TV. And for a while I thought it would be the only one. I was also surprised a few years ago when my wife’s Year 9 Drama students at St Kevins performed a rendition of the play “The Big Men Fly” by Alan Hopgood which I think was written in the 60’s and explores the growing encroachment of corporate culture into football even then. It actually made me think Williamson was not as seminal as he’s often made out to be. And yet he was able to adapt such ideas brilliantly within “The Club” – to give due credit. A final anecdote on that St Kevin’s play was that it included the grandson of the late Ray Gabelich. It seemed fitting! Hope you are well my friend.

  13. James Grapsas says:

    Grear article, Phillip. I just saw this, more than 3 years after the event.

    Is the reference to the Ross resource the 1996 book ‘Roar of the Lions: Fitzroy Remembered: 1883-1996’, by John Ross, Garrie Hutchinson and Rick Lang?

  14. Phillip Dimitriadis says:

    Hi James,
    The reference is from the 1996 Centenary book: 100 Years of Australian Football. Cheers

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