“Thin Loyalty”

The whole Ross Lyon thing, combined with a few other moves in the AFL, leaves me feeling a bit confused, certainly disappointed and not a little bit angry. Not just about the idea that “my club” has lost a coach who got us within touching distance of two premierships, but about the whole concept of what AFL footy now means to me, as a supporter.

My Dad started watching the saints at the Junction Oval in the late 1930s when a mate dragged him to a game from their usual haunts in Prahran. That started his lifelong obsession with St.Kilda, and lead directly to mine and my brothers’. Our Mum even changed allegiance to the saints when she and Dad married, leaving Carlton behind to “keep the peace”. We’ve been through some tough times in the late 70s and 80s, and enjoyed the (relative) successes of the recent past. But I’m starting to wonder what it is that I’m supporting, what is this entity known as the Saints.

This stuff started to get me worried when the Ross Lyon kerfuffle was revealed to the public. Lyon’s main motivation, as reported in the papers and from what I’ve seen of his initial press conference in Perth, is to further his career as a coach. This raises a couple of issues in my mind – that he thinks  the saints’ prospects in the next few years won’t improve the look of his CV, and the real biggie – was he coaching the last five years whilst constantly thinking about moving “somewhere better”?  Ok, everyone has a right to pursue their profession to the highest level possible, and changing jobs / clubs is a way to find that level. But does that allow him to take the long term view of what’s best for StKFC? A coach wants his team to do the best it can within the time he coaches it. The supporter wants the team to be successful all the time. These two goals match up a lot of the time, but what about when the time for re-generation comes, when recruiting to replace today’s stars becomes necessary? Does the career coach ignore that and just walk away when their “window” shuts? This leaves the supporter staring at a period of underperforming that might have been avoidable. The real legendary coaches, the Jock McHales, Kevin Sheedys, even Mick Malthouse, have coached clubs through successful periods then re-generated and come again, riding out the bad times until the window opens again. Not the modern day “Career Coach”.

Raimond Gaita, the writer, philosopher and passionate Bulldogs supporter said in a great interview on 3RRR on 28th September that he thought that Ross Lyon has a pretty thin definition of loyalty. He was referring to Lyon’s statement that he would be loyal to whoever he is working for any given time. Lyon made it clear that he hadn’t used loyalty as a motivational tool with his players – presumably since he knew that his own loyalties would soon shift elsewhere, for “career” reasons. Even Peter Schwab, writing on the AFL Community Club Website on 28th September says “In modern sport it is such a highly competitive game on and off the field in the pursuit of success, that the concept of loyalty is tested. I believe loyalty is best viewed on a seasonal basis. It’s easier that way.” Easier to justify to your own conscience, I would suggest. As Gaita said on radio, if you follow this line of thinking through to its’ natural conclusion, maybe “…it(‘s) time to walk away from the whole thing?

Greg Baum wrote a terrific article in The Age on 17th September which quoted musician David Bridie (a passionate Melbourne supporter) on Tom Scully’s move to GWS. Bridie made the point that Scully could have said no to the big $ and stayed at Melbourne – he still would have earned $400K plus a year, surely enough for any twenty year old. But no, Scully went because he couldn’t say no to such a career move. In Bridie’s view he was selling his soul for a few (immediate) sheckles. In time he might have become a star for the Dees, but he wanted the cash now, so he went. He wanted to maximise his earning potential while he could. Similarly Gaita lamented the loss of “local boy” Callan Ward from the doggies – if a kid who grows up in Yarraville barracking for Footscray, from a whole family of doggies can’t be convinced to stay, then who can? Of course, it’s the AFL that creates the system that almost compels these guys to take the cash, but all the clubs signed off on the whole GWS thing – they were convinced that, for business reasons, we must continue to “grow the game”.

At this time of year assistant coaches pick up their clipboards and get on the merry-go-round. They might stop at any club in the country, some maybe even score a “head” coach’s role, at whatever club offers them the best “career option.” The same applies to club CEOs, fitness guys, medical staff, recruiters and pretty much all club staff. There is no paid position at an AFL club from which people can’t be poached. Collingwood have put in place a succession plan (nice business management term, that one) that seemed designed to do little but prevent other clubs moving on their golden boy future coach. That it requires a legendary coach who nearly led them to consecutive flags to be sidelined to make the plan work seems to matter little. Had Buckley not stayed at Collingwood in 2009, Eddie might have upset the masses, loosening his grip on power, and that was not part of the plan.

Mark Thompson was “tired, finished” after last year’s finals. So tired, he walked away from the cats. But he wasn’t tired, just keen on helping an old mate who needed some experience in the coach’s box. Truth doesn’t matter, not when there’s backroom deals to be done.

So what are we left with, at my (or any) “club”. Players, coaches, administrators and support staff that are all looking after their own careers. It’s a business, an industry, they’ll all say in their defence. Yes, well it is to them. But not to me, or you, or any of the other real footy barrackers around the country. To us, it’s a passion, almost a quasi-religion – it’s something we can believe in, something that brings added hope into our lives. But underneath it all, every club is exactly the same. Franchise shop-fronts for the AFL conglomerate. Another article in The Age on 22nd September, by Jake Niall sums up this point: “This schism between the industry and the faith has existed for a long time, but has become more pronounced due to the increased professionalism and the sheer weight of money in the AFL. Over the past month, the insiders have exposed their workings to those on the outside and the fans, by and large, don’t like it.” Too right we don’t.

What are we really supporting when we barrack for a club? It’s not the people, they are transferable at the drop of a (very expensive) hat. Is it the team name – a few clubs have even changed that – hello Footscray, South Melbourne and Fitzroy supporters. Is it the jumper – well, they change every season, even week to week with clash strips and heritage versions. Does each club play a certain way that we can identify with – no, they’re all trying to copy the latest press / flood / zone method that the last premier used. In Melbourne it’s not even geography, like it is in European soccer. There are nine teams whose names derive from nearby suburbs, but even then few have any real connection to a place (Hawthorn at Waverley, Melbourne at Cranbourne, saints at Seaford etc). What about a club’s history, I hear you ask. Well, history only matters if you pay it some respect, honour your organisation’s culture and traditions. How much do Melbourne clubs reflect their origins these days – working class magpies? – hardly. Catholic Tigers? – can’t have that sort of discrimination any more. Silvertail Demons? – they’ve barley got two bob to rub together. It’s like the ALP, a once proud standard bearer for the working class and justice for all, and look at them now. AFL clubs are no different. They’ll be whatever you want them to be, as long as you shell out the bikkies for a membership (with reserved seat, of course). But we don’t change our “vote” – we’re rusted-on, supporters for life – and we’re being taken for a ride, because everyone else in this equation treats the whole affair as a way to make money.

These days watching the game (on TV and live in the stadiums) means suffering through endless repeats of ads for betting agencies, breweries, fast food outlets and whatever other mob pay the bucks to become “corporate partners”. AFL supporters all laughed out loud at the Rugby Super League that Rupert Murdoch created to provide content for his pay TV channel, and therefore make him more advertising millions. How far from that are we in the AFL now? Not very far at all. Deep down, the AFL is purely a vehicle that TV stations use to sell us shit we don’t need.

Many Americans have become disconnected from professional sport since the teams are privately owned, the players seem greedy and self-absorbed and the league is run mostly to appease broadcasters and sponsors. AFL is not too far from much of that. If “my” club is the same as this or that club or any other why do I support it? Ross Lyon said he never used loyalty as a coaching tool, to motivate his players. But loyalty is all that supporters have, and I’m not sure any of the clubs in the AFL deserve my loyalty any more.

And since when did supporting your club require that you buy all the latest merchandise every year. Kids must have this year’s (home and clash) jumper – it’s got to have the current sponsor’s name on it. I still wear the beanie my Mum knitted for me 30 years ago – does that mean I’m not doing my bit for the club? I feel some loyalty to the idea of continuing the family “tradition” and sticking with the saints, especially with both my sons now similarly afflicted. And there’s a degree of loyalty to the other supporters around us, our mates and their families that we go each week with. But I’m still not sure the club, any AFL club, deserves any such commitment.

Don’t get me wrong – I still love the game. The skill, speed and courage of players at the elite level is a wonder to behold. And I’ll always love Lenny, Sam Fisher, Milney, even Blakey. Maybe I could just watch my favourite players in some dispassionate, a-football, non-partisan way? Then I could barrack for the true marvels – the Bartels, Sellwoods (all of ‘em), Buddy, Juddy, Jobe Watson, Bob Murhpy, Adam Goodes. Would that be a satisfying way to watch footy? I’ve got my doubts. In February the membership renewal will arrive – the kids will be keen, and the old bunch we go with will grumble about the cost (extra for a reserved seat again?) but they’ll all sign up in the end. Will I? Probably, but it won’t be the same. I’ve been struck on the road to Damascus, or to Insert-brand-name-here Stadium, by a blinding flash – I’m the only one in this equation who cares about anything but the money that can be made. And I’m not happy about it.

Is this all just the bitter ravings of a sad, obsessed fan who felt a flag was within reach (I actually felt we had it won for about 60 seconds after Goddard’s mark and goal in the drawn GF), but the chance is now slipping away? Probably. But the game (to me it’s still game, not an industry) is changing and I’m wondering if this is not just sour grapes but a moment of clarity. Finally I can see the whole charade for what it really is – a method of getting sad tragics like me to part with lots of cash for no tangible reason. Maybe I’m better off devoting all that energy and commitment to the Fitzroy Junior Football Club – at least I know that everyone’s heart is in it.

In one of the last scenes in the tremendous documentary on the 1971 Grand Final, “The Final Story”, Allan Jeans says to John Kennedy that everyone should try to “…leave our game in such a state that the next generation has the same opportunity as we did.” Do all the people in today’s AFL “industry” really think they’re doing that?

It’ looks like it’s going to be a long summer.


  1. John Butler says

    Dick, great piece.

    Many things to consider here, as I suspect many of us have been.

    Thanks for putting your thoughts down.

  2. Hey Dick, I’m feeling for you.

    It seems that there are two types of coaches nowadays. The “developers” who are more often first time coaches who develop lists to the point of ‘readiness’ (eg. Matthew Knights, Dean, Bailey, Mark Harvey) and the “finishers” who tend to be seasoned coaches with a track record of success.

    Sometimes “developers” take their lists all the way trhough to Premiership success (eg.Mark Thompson) but more often than not, that does not happen.

    James Hird (and Nathan Buckley to a lesser extent) are interesting case studies. Essendon people certainly believe they are better than their results have shown, so Hird has been brought in as a “finisher” – without a track record. Kevin Bartlett or Tony Shaw revisited?

    Having said that, whilst Geelong is not immune to the “pressures” of this move towards commercialism and corporatisation and has (like other clubs) been impacted by them and courted them, your article makes me feel even prouder to be a Cats supporter. Whether its our locality, or a very deliberate strategic decision, the Cats are driven (at least for now) to do ALL things its own way and with tradition as a cornerstone.

  3. Pete,

    I agree with your view of coaches….but then you go and claim the Geelong high moral ground again. I wonder what the “ALL” things are?? Sure, it’s been a great ride since Rd 4 in 2007 when the knives were out for Bomber…..but why must this occur with Cat fans?

    Haven’t you just renamed your stadium for the nth time? I’m presuming that this would of course be for $$$$?

    Don’t the Cats sell corporate packages and advertising? And merchandise…..

    I remember Cat fans complaining at having to pay $25 for a photo with the premiership cup back in 2007….

    Your location allows you the luxury to stay put and we are all envious of this fact. But please don’t put this down to any brilliant commercial decision because to move away from Geelong would have had quite the opposite effect.

    So really, the Cats are just as commercially minded as the rest of the competition whether we like it or not.

  4. Hey Bakes, I did say that the Cats have been impacted by and indeed courted commercialisation, but you’re may be right in saying I’ve understated the extent.

    However, you are not entirely correct when you say “Your location allows you the luxury to stay put.” The Cats were told by the AFL that KP was unacceptable as a venue and that they would have to consider moving to Docklands. They analysed it, then refused to move, providing the AFL with an action plan and schedule which they had to meet. It WAS a brilliant commercial decision, brought about by brilliant management on behalf of Brian Cook and the support provided by Frank Costa.

  5. Pete,

    With respect, the people of Geelong & the surrounds would have gone beserk had they moved to the Docklands.

    It was never going to happen, never. The AFL were not serious.

    And the State Govt threw in some (plenty) of $’s to help with the ground upgrade and so they should have.

    There is absolutely no doubt that Cooky, Frank et al have done a simply wonderful job at Geelong & just look at the harvest that they are enjoying now as a result.

  6. Top story Dick – heartfelt and sadly, true (in ways)

  7. Andrew Else says

    I did think it was in a bit of bad taste when Pete claimed that Dick’s piece made him ‘even prouder to be a Cats supporter’. Given that Dick had put all of his Saints’ Passion out there (including 09 Grand Final heartache), I would doubt warming the cockles of a Cats fan’s heart was his main objective.

    For what it’s worth Dick, I think there’s no doubt you’re hurting from recent events. I think the reason fans are loyal is because there is always hope of the next season, of the next recruit, of the next coach etc. The colours (though not always the jumper) are consistant, as are the people you watch/discuss the game with. There is also the ritual of attending the game (admittedly difficult with Sunday twilight encounters), that allows the hope to seep in.

    As for the loyalty of players, I can’t see how the move of Ward or Scully are much different from any other change of club right back to Barassi. Of course the fact that it’s to a ‘franchise’ put together by City Hall hurts, but for every Scully there is a Robbie Flower and for every Ward there is a Chris Grant. If loyalty was everywhere, it wouldn’t be worth celebrating.

    In regards to Ross Lyon, whilst I sympathise with you, there have been Saints coaches like Sheldon, Alves and Blight who were shown no loyalty by the board, so you can understand why Lyon thought he may be on shaky ground.

    Don’t become a ‘theatre goer’ Dick. Those are the people who turn to wagers to make it interesting. Wear your colours with pride…in your reserved seat

  8. Dick – agree with everything you said. But what do we do about it? A salary cap for clubs as well as players? Footy reflects the market values and eager consumption of society, so I can’t think of a practical way of swimming against the stream. It would need real society/social leadership from the AFL Commissioners – but I can’t see that happening with the self perpetuating system.
    On the Pies V Cats debate – I don’t know the details of all the business issues, but when Colin Carter stood up against Kennet and Maguire over sensible moderate pokies constraints – the Cats went to #2 in my footy universe (and lets face it – #1 wasn’t up for grabs). Seemed to say the Cats take the long term well being of their community more seriously than their short term finances. A rare statement of principle – rewarded with a premiership.

  9. Matt Zurbo says

    Dick, ripper piece!
    I once went to watch St.Kilda v West Coast on a big screen in a room above a Morrabin pub with the Saints for Morrabin gang. The Saints came from behind in enemy territory and got up by 4 points in a great win. To see Winmar sling a mighty, rampaging Jackovich through the air was momentum at its finest, and know that, still a few goals down, they could not be stopped and were never going to lose. The gang went off, singing the club song again and again, and I wondered what they were so passionate about, just like you are now. Their team had moved, players were drafted from other zones,and often traded just as fast, there was nothing St.Kilda about them anymore. Except the colours. Primal things, like gangs and tribes. A place for us to barrack and give our love and belong. In the end I decided what we love is belonging to a tribe. Football. Our team’s jumpers the colour tint through which we see the world.
    Everything that happens either side of the bounce and the final siren is out of our hands. Young men will always want to be pioneers, important parts of something new, like the Suns. It’s not just the money, I’m sure. Either way, we have no say. But on weekends, when they team runs out, in their colours, red, white and black, we belong to them, and they are ours.

  10. Hi Dick,

    we were both writing long term Saints pieces at the same time. I wanted to know how my Uncle has been doing this for 61 years, I’m struggling with the last four years. I think Matt Z is on the right track, we are part of a tribe, for better or worse we are with the colours and the history and we can divorce it all but will the next one be better, be it team or code? What makes footy great is the people we go with, who are the people we travel through life with. And with the Almanac writers, our chums and soul mates have widened our journey. We get to vent and create and respond and think and wonder and hope and wish and others meander back with their thoughts and look what we have. We feel each others pain, we watch each others glories, we envy and we are jealous but it has a place and, in the end, it’s only football, so it does us the favour of being a place to deposit some of the frenzy of life and in the end, it’s the ride and not the destination. (Though I would like a few more destinations please…ie cups and the reward of a year as the winners, it doesn’t last long, look at Collingwood, but they had their year and they lapped it up.)

    That said, you have to go through the pain to see what emerges and what is transformed through the experience. And perhaps that is also what our club now has to do, work through the pain of the last few years and see what can emerge. Anything that gives us a more attacking game will do for me.

    Hang in there. There is always the dream of next year….


  11. Dick

    I think your piece encapsulates the concerns that many writers on this site have expressed, myself included, about the growing corporatisation of the AFL and, consequently, the very business-like behaviour of its participants.

    I’m not sure what the answer is. Ross Lyon didn’t exactly behave in keeping with the STKFC motto, but why on earth should he? How often have football clubs demonstrated loyalty to their coaches when the going gets tough? Why should we expect unconditional (naive?) loyalty from players and coaches who know from the moment they enter the AFL system that the clock is ticking?

    If this sounds a bit too dispassionate, I pass on this quote from Liam Quin’s article about the Grand Final which I have also just read.

    “The people who play and work for football clubs are merely transient custodians. They do their job for a few years. The real owners of the club are the fans because they do their job for generations.”

    Unfortunately, there are times when being a fan does make you feel like a stupid, tragic fool who naively parts with his hard-earned in pursuit of a ridiculous fantasy (I should know – I’ve followed Richmond for over 40 years!). But I reckon a long-term commitment to most things in life bring about such feelings of futility from time to time. Ultimately it’s your call as to whether you reckon the commitment is worthwhile. I reckon plenty of Geelong fans must have despaired during the 44 year drought from 1963 to 2007. Those that persisted wouldn’t be feeling too many misgivings about disloyalty, big business and the growing “professionalism” of our game just at the moment.

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