Robert Walls in the 1987 Grand Final – A Coaching Master Class

By Miles Wilks

 

The Grand Final defeat of 1986 was a bitter and demoralising moment for the Carlton Football Club. The pain of the 1986 Grand Final was felt even more acutely as Bruce Doull, arguably Carlton’s most admired player, was humbled by Hawthorn’s power forward Jason Dunstall and as a result refused to be chaired off the ground in his last match. The most memorable image from this Grand Final was of Bruce Doull trudging wearily from the ground, head bowed & forlorn.  This wasn’t the right way for a legend of the game to finish his career. Twelve months earlier, Leigh Matthews had also retired in a losing grand final, but at least he was chaired from the ground.


Doull’s ex-teammate and the 1987 Carlton coach Robert Walls is mostly remembered as a coach who was ruthless on his players, as he imposed harsh training methods, yet this media image of Walls as a hard task master overlooks his role as an astute tactician of the game. Robert Walls put on a master class in the 1987 Grand Final in terms of surprise team selections and tactical moves. His tactical nous was arguably the single most important reason why the Blues won in 1987.

 

Hawthorn had five key players that were the focus of Walls’ tactical decision making for the 1987 Grand Final. These players were their forwards Dermott Brereton & Gary Buckenara plus their midfielders John Platten & Russell Greene. The fifth player was Robert Dipierdomenico, who was in this bracket of key Hawthorn players, yet was one player who was not be subdued in any of the games Carlton played against Hawthorn in 1987.

 

As a result of there still being video footage of every Carlton-Hawthorn match of that year (Round 1, Round 14, the 2nd semi-final, and the Grand Final) one can discern what tactical decisions Walls made throughout the season. When it came to Dipierdomenico, Walls tried six different opponents on him throughout the season, and none of the match-ups could be termed a victory. For the other Hawthorn players, Walls struck gold in the Grand Final, as all four were subdued by Carlton players.

 

David Glascott (CFC) vs John Platten (HFC)

Hawthorn had the media endorsed reputation in the 1980s of being the “Family Club” that rarely ventured outside the paradigm of recruiting locally made players. Yet the facts indicate otherwise with their expensive interstate recruits in that decade including Gary Buckenara (WA), Paul Harding (WA), Steve Malaxos (WA), Colin Robertson (Tas), Tony Hall (SA), Ken Judge (WA) and Jason Dunstall (Qld) amongst others.

 

Of all their high priced interstate recruits, however, arguably the most important was the South Australian import, John “The Rat” Platten, who was the leading possession winner in the league for 1987 by a large margin and the Brownlow medallist for that year.  Considering Platten’s record in the 1987 home and away season, the biggest task Walls had for the Grand Final was to devise a match-up on this Hawthorn midfielder and the Carlton player he deemed worthy of taking on this role was David Glascott.

 

This Glascott-Platten match-up was another surprise selection for the Grand Final and every bit as important as the match-up the media focused on, which was the Rhys-Jones vs Brereton battle. It was a surprise for the Hawthorn coaching staff, as Glascott had not gone head to head against Platten in any of the three previous matches that Carlton had played against Hawthorn in the season. Putting a specialist tagger such as Mick Kennedy up against Platten would have been the expected option from Hawthorn, but in the previous matches this had been no real impediment for Platten obtaining many possessions.

 

It was therefore an astute decision by Walls to give the job to Glascott as he was a proven finals performer who had already played in the golden era of Carlton’s 1981-82 premiership teams. And more importantly in season 1987 Glascott was a large possession winner in his own right (Glascott was the third highest possession winner in the game after Platten and Greg Williams for the 1987 season).

 

Glascott didn’t just nullify Platten in the Grand Final by applying intense tackling pressure he also put pressure on him by obtaining more possessions. This higher possession tally from Glascott was a significant feat that has rarely been acknowledged in the media. Glascott obtained 24 possessions, whilst Platten was limited to his second lowest possession tally for the whole season with just 15 possessions.

 

The 1987 Grand Final was Glascott’s most important moment for the Carlton Football Club and for this contribution he should be given far more kudos, yet in media discussions Glascott’s 1987 Grand Final contribution is rarely even mentioned. It is a great shame that Glascott’s name isn’t mentioned alongside Harmes, Doull, Rhys-Jones and others as one of the club’s great Grand Final players.

 

Tom Alvin (CFC) vs Gary Buckenara (HFC)

Gary Buckenara was an established star player for the Subiaco Football Club in Western Australia before he was recruited by Hawthorn in what was for those times a massive transfer fee of $260,000. The Subiaco Football Club considered Buckenara “irreplaceable” but they lost him nonetheless to Hawthorn who were determined to lure him across to Victoria with a big money offer.

 

Buckenara repaid in spades the money Hawthorn invested in him. The first big pay day for Hawthorn occurred when Buckenara had an exceptional game in the 1986 Grand Final. Buckenara kicked as many as four goals in that belting of the Blues. With such a strong record, meticulous planning therefore went into how to match-up against Buckenara for the 1987 season.

 

Buckenara missed the Round 1 match against Carlton, yet in the Round 14 match Carlton’s Tommy Alvin was assigned the task of curbing Buckenara’s output. Buckernara’s key asset was his exceptional marking skills, yet Alvin quickly nullified this attribute. In this Round 14 match, Alvin infuriarated Buckenara by regularly taking marks in front of the Hawks forward. When the diving Alvin took a mark in front of Buckenara during the 2nd quarter it resulted in the Hawthorn forward screaming at the umpire for beneficial treatment. It was this emotional outburst that informed all, including Carlton coach Robert Walls, that Alvin had Buckenara’s measure.

 

Then when Alvin had the gall to take another mark in front of Buckenara the Hawthorn forward gave Alvin two punches to the head region. “Bucky gave him one to carry on with,” said commentator Tim Lane. “Uncalled for I would say”, said co-commentator Ian Robertson. These punches resulted in a 15 metre penalty but no booking from the umpire.

 

Prior to the Grand Final, Buckenara was BOG in the preliminary final against Melbourne, as his five goals were the difference between the sides, plus his after the siren goal sealed the result for Hawthorn. No other Hawthorn player, Brereton included, kicked more than one goal in this match.

 

In the Grand Final, it was expected that Rhys-Jones would be Buckenara’s opponent yet once again Walls got the match-up correct, as he assigned the task to Tom Alvin. It was Alvin’s ability to outmark and outcompete Buckenara in the air that was again most noticeable, as it had been also in the Round 14 match. Buckenara’s output in the preliminary final was 21 possessions & 5 goals, yet in the Grand Final he was reduced by Alvin to 8 possessions and no goals.

 

Mick Kennedy (CFC) vs Russell Greene (HFC)

Russell Greene built a lengthy career of five seasons at St Kilda before, as it was reported in Inside Football at the beginning of 1979, he sought a transfer to a successful club for “financial” reasons. In 1980, Hawthorn stepped forward to offer the money required to recruit Greene and from this point onwards Russell Greene had a glittering career, packed full of accolades.

 

Greene’s role in Hawthorn’s golden era has been overlooked as all the “big name” players have stolen the spotlight. It is a largely forgotten fact that Greene won the league’s Most Valuable Player award in 1984. This prestigious award is voted on by the players and in that year the players collectively judged him the best player in the competition.  Although he didn’t have the high profile of Dunstall, Brereton or Platten he was one of Hawthorn’s key weapons of attack due to his ability to link up running players with his high quality disposal skills.

 

Carlton’s coach Robert Walls, however, was not one to take Greene lightly and he once again came to the fore with meticulous planning in curbing the influence of one of Hawthorn’s most damaging players for the 1987 Grand Final. Robert Walls had tried a variety of options throughout the season. In Round 1, he gave the job on Greene to the versatile Paul Meldrum. Although Meldrum started well in this match, late in the 1st quarter Greene’s linking play set up a goal for Hawthorn. From that moment on the balance of the contest changed with Greene gaining the ascendancy. Walls then gave Tom Alvin the job on subduing Greene, yet this really didn’t produce the desired result either.

 

In the Round 14 match, Greene obtained 22 possesions and kicked two goals. This possession tally along with the two goals meant that Greene had a bigger impact than even Hawthorn’s high priced South Australian recruit, John Platten. Greene was also arguably best on ground in this match as no other Hawthorn player topped his possession total or his impact.

 

After this Round 14 match, Greene’s form dipped and as a result he missed the last five matches of the home and away season. He was also not selected for the second semi-final against Carlton. The Hawthorn brains trust, however, quickly recalled Greene after the semi-final loss, as he was a proven performer against Carlton. Greene played well in the preliminary final, but the real aim was to set his loose in the grand final against a team he had the wood on- Carlton. The television commentator Peter McKenna emphasised Greene’s dominace in matches against the Blues when he stated during the Grand Final telecast, “There’s Russell Greene, a great finals performer …and he always plays well against Carlton.”

 

In the Grand Final, Greene was given a new opponent that he had not encountered in any of the previous matches against Carlton in 1987. His opponent was the tagger, Mick Kennedy.  At this point, one can see another sub-text that the media overlooked. Kennedy, just like his teammate Glascott, had come up through the grassroots ranks, playing under 19s and reserves football for Carlton. Yet in contrast their two Hawthorn opponents, Platten & Greene, were highly paid imports to the “Family Club”.

 

For most pundits, it was expected that Carlton’s Mick Kennedy would be assigned the job of curbing the influence of Hawthorn’s key playmaker John Platten in the Grand Final as it was a job that Kennedy had taken on throughout the season. Yet to see the undervalued Kennedy, with just 27 games experience, taking on the seasoned veteran Russell Greene with 287 games experience was another shock move from Walls.

 

In their pre-planning for the Grand Final, the Blues believed they would wear the Hawks down in the first three quarters and put the after-burners on in the last quarter. One player who epitomised this strategy was Mick Kennedy, who through constant pressure and harrasment had worn down Greene by three-quarter time. Greene looked exhausted by the last quarter, yet Kennedy looked refreshed.

 

Kennedy had two inside 50 kicks early in the last quarter, prompting commentator Dennis Commeti to state, “He’s been a fine player this afternoon”. Then Carlton’s first goal of the last quarter, and the one that started the goal spree was set up moments later by Kennedy’s long bomb into the forward line. This all-important goal sealed the result as it gave the Blues a comfortable buffer of 23 points.

 

By the end of the match, Mick Kennedy had the satisfaction of beating a nemesis for the Blues, a player who had tormented the team over many years. The combination of beating a proven star player and setting up the winning goal in a Grand Final is an achievement few footballers in their whole career get to experience, yet Kennedy in 1987 achieved this rare double treat.

 

 

When looking back on the spectacular 1987 season, it can be stated that Walls put on a master-class in tactical decision making for the Grand Final. Whilst in the 1986 Grand Final it was Hawthorn who had the surprise team selections (Ayres on the wing against Rhys-Jones being a particular winner), in the 1987 Grand Final Carlton coach Robert Walls trumped Hawthorn with his decision making. Surprise selections, match-ups that hadn’t been tried in the season such as Glascott on Platten, Kennedy on Greene, and Rhys-Jones on Brereton, bamboozled the Hawthorn brainstrust. This match was without a doubt the finest moment in the careers of Mick Kennedy, David Glascott and Tom Alvin, but more importantly it was a triumph in decision making from the Carlton coach in Robert Walls. 

Comments

  1. Loved this, thanks Miles

  2. Mick Jeffrey says:

    With the reliance on zonal and rotational defence (and the need for any defensive player to do a job like Glascott did in winning the ball as well as nullifying the opponent) in the modern game you’ll probably never see this again.

  3. Miles Wilks says:

    Mick, I agree. With the modern game and the 80 plus rotations per game you loose the essence of the classic one-on-one match-up. Glascott did a job on Platten, and how often can you say that Platten was nullified in any important match? No other Grand Final anyway. I loved the aspect of Walls moving the chess pieces around to nullify the strengths of Hawthorn. Very interesting from a tactical viewpoint. Thanks Litza for the feedback too.

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