AFL: The engineer and the artist

“It is as if Thomas Gradgrind had gotten hold of the humanities and turned them into factory robotics.”


So says Anthony Esolen in his discussion about the modern destruction of imagination. But he could have been writing about modern football. He could have been describing what has happened to our beautiful game since we allowed coaches to study coaching, since we allowed them to treat players as a human resource, like a tin mine or a deposit of uranium, since we allowed them to convince us that instigating a press, whereby every player is squashed into a parcel of land no bigger than a child’s playground, is a great thing because it might win us a game; since they convinced us that kicking the ball backwards and sideways is progress, since we allowed them to take the instinct out of a player’s game so that he can now “play a role”.


Where is Phil Carman today? Or Brent Croswell? What hogwash. What nonsense. When did we allow this to happen?


It is a terrible mistake to do a bad thing so that other good things may follow. Similarly, it is a bad thing to cajole the players of our beautiful game into a shoebox and rationalise this as being beneficial to a team in the long run. The game is bastardised and bashed out of shape. The “beauty” of football is now measured in the tackle count and not the leap of the centre half forward or the tenacity of the back pocket. Malcolm Blight would never try a 70 metre torp these days.


When Gary Ablett senior kicked nine goals against Richmond did he wonder about the blandness of the forward as a defensive mechanism? Or did he let himself play with the freedom of the virtuoso? When Matthew Scarlett toe poked the ball to Gary Ablett junior in the magnificent climax to the 2009 Grand Final was he wondering if he was adhering to the coach’s instructions? When Jesaulenko leapt onto the shoulders of “Jerker” Jenkins (sorry to remind you again Jerker) in the 1970 Grand Final did he just leap at the ball with the joy of youth and the flight of a free spirit, or was he wondering whether he should be playing another role? When Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling was he “just playing his role” for the world of art?


“It is not a failure of imagination to see the sky blue. It is a failure rather to be weary of its being blue- and not to notice how blue it is” – Anthony Esolen.


Coaches are like cockroaches; after a nuclear blast, they will survive. They are experts at survival because they practice it relentlessly. Every weekend. Teams are picked to win enough games every year so that sponsors get value for money and so the rapacious media leaves this coach alone and attacks another poor sod. This week they are saying that Collingwood’s victory saved the coach. Poor Collingwood. No, I tell you this, the coach was saved because he ceased to act as the coach he had become and threw caution to the wind. He told his players to run and run and run; to attack the middle corridor of the ground, to trust themselves and their instincts. And to hell with the game plan! The coach was powerless and he knew it. After the final siren, he was a washed-out soul, devoid of any glee or happiness, and empty of joy. Why? Because none of it was his doing.


Does Geelong need Chris Scott to do a PhD in the transportation of the air conveyance from one end of the ground to the other? No. Geelong needs Chris Scott to un-learn most of what he believes about coaching. He should watch, repeatedly, the last quarter of the game against the Roos in round 2. He should watch, repeatedly, the 2007 Grand Final. It was noticeable on Friday night, as the Cats dismantled the Dogs early in the game, how often the camera showed him with a bewildered look on his face in the coach’s box, like a six-year-old boy who had just opened page 3 of The Truth; he wasn’t sure what he was looking at but he knew he liked it.


Wisdom does not always come with old age. Sadly, most who reach old age probably do not attain wisdom. The only thing that old age certainly teaches us is to confront our own mortality. So rather than coaches concentrating on reaching “old age” in a coaching context, perhaps they should chase wisdom instead. Far better to read a brilliant, short piece than to plough through a dreary long novel.


There’s all the difference in the world between teaching a human being and sanding the gears in a machine. The machine does a job. The human being embarks on a quest. The machine hums a dreary, constant drone. The human being sings” – Anthony Esolen.


About Damian O'Donnell

I'm passionate about breathing. And you should always chase your passions. If I read one more thing about what defines leadership I think I'll go crazy. Go Cats.


  1. This is truly sublime and wise – he finds the words I’ve been struggling to find for years.

  2. Les Currie says

    I really enjoy your writing and thought processes Damian. Oh for the day when a wingman plays on the wing, a rover takes a tap and runs all the way to boot one and when I don’t have to watch the big screen at the ground to see what is going on in that far corner pocket where the ball seems to be buried.

  3. Rulebook says

    Dips I agree with most of what you have written a classic example is Vickery where the game has become to complex for him re structures and team rules and he just can’t adapt.Ironic tho in this over coached era we have Richmond where a under 10s side would have more of a clue defensively.As a Norwood man tho who read our team rules and understood the structures and where every 1 had to be under,Nathan Bassett it was complex and in some ways it was like a game of chess and was very defensive in 12 and 13
    I found it fascinating to watch but can’t deny the fact we virtually won every week helped but it was a game plan with a burn out factor ( they all do to some extent ) yes overall the game has become to complex for its own good

  4. Warren Tapner says

    It’s true, Dips, that wisdom does not always come with old age – but equally, experience is the only reliable teacher. Sadly, too many will never know the difference.

  5. Thanks for the comments.

    John – Anthony Esolen is a beautiful writer.
    Les – why is the game always played in the opposite pocket to where I sit?
    Rulebook – Vickery is a great example. Geelong is in the process of messing up a few players. Cockatoo being one. Guthrie could be in the best midfielders in the competition but never gets to play there (he has another role to play!), Lang is just a confused young man, Blicavs must wonder what this game is all about, and the young Irishman, Mark OÇonnor, has my deepest sympathies.

  6. Rulebook says

    The stupidity banning the 3rd man up has ruined,Blicavs ironically that was a role and purpose he understood perfectly and seemingly can not adapt to doing any thing else

  7. Beautifully expressed Dips. You identify the disease, but what is the cause. “Risk management” is the scourge of the modern age. Don’t do anything possibly useful, because it contains risk and hence the possibility of failure.
    I have been wondering why I don’t feel much like writing about footy and the Eagles this year. You helped crystalise that we win by playing ugly accountable footy (Ross Lyon eat your heart out) and we are awful when we don’t. Heads they win, tails you lose.
    The good teams all seem to have the creative genius who can confound the conventional. Betts. Dangerfield on Friday. GWS have a stack that enables them to overcome crippling injuries. Daniher at times. Without NicNat my Eagles are handy to awful.
    The rest are grinders who can outgrind their opponents 50% of the time. Yawn.
    I wonder if this is more the reason for the evenness of the comp than salary cap and the draft etc.

  8. E.regnans says

    I miss swanny.

  9. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    There’s a kid in the red and blue that I know who seems to have blossomed immensely since his new coach has allowed him to back himself.

    Maybe some of Blighty has rubbed off on S Goodwin.

    You are spot on Dips. Afraid of losing rather than wanting to win.

  10. Yvette Wroby says

    Hi Dips,
    love your take on the world. Kicking backwards kills us every week. I want them to run and fly and have fun. Cos that way we fly too.

    Thanks again

  11. As well as alarming and growing numbers referring to the sport as “AFL” players and coaches mentioning the “group” and not the “team” is an irritant. Group is pseudo-inclusive and insipid wankery. For me this is emblematic of the problems you’ve analysed here Dips. Great piece.

  12. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Sublime piece of writing Dips.
    I’m not a big fan of tinkering with the rules, however I do reckon it’s time to call play on for kicking back wards and go 16 a side VFA style .Congestion everywhere !! When I think of names that wouldn’t get a game today: As you say: Ablett Snr, Crosswell. Throw in Lockett, Carman, Brereton, even Daicos snr would be overlooked for having too much of a low centre of gravity. Enough with the automatons of mind and body. We’ve lost the drop, the torp the one-on-one contests – the risk and bravura. The things that stirred our imagination to love the characters and possibilities of this once wonderful game. It’s no coincidence that the golden eras of footy 1930s, late 1960’s, 70s, 80s and early 90s all had great forwards, brilliant defenders and influential ruckmen. Brownlow winners since 1992 have reflected the malaise.
    While I’m at it, limit the coaches to 3 tops. Backs, mids and forwards. The rest of them can find jobs like the rest of us. Salute Dips !!

  13. Well played, Dips.
    I feel that we have gone too far to wind it all back.
    But my concern is: where will it all end?
    Watching that Geelong prelim final (07?) in the North Fitzroy Arms with you last Friday, I was alarmed at how unrecognisable that game was compared to what we have now.

    Ah, Brent Crosswell. The games I saw him play, Dips.

  14. Love the comments. Glad I’m not the only one who is worn out watching our “new” game.

    Mickey – “pseudo-inclusive and insipid wankery” – brilliant. And so many applications!

  15. Paul Young says

    Yep, as they say; well played Dips.

    As the late, great Bill Hicks once said: “If an atomic bomb went off the only survivors would be cockroaches and Keith Richards”.

    In fairness ‘AFL’ coaches weren’t around when Hicks wrote that in the 1980’s.

  16. Sal Ciardulli says

    A good read again Dips!

    Agree for the most part on the robotics of of the game – gone is is the long bombs to Snake strategy cause Snake is probably being blocked for a run by a couple of opponents while another defender is allowed to take an uncontested mark. The poor policing of blocks is for another day.

    There are a few wizards in the game today though who just know how to play footy. Phil Carman is running around wearing number 18 for the Giants, Stevie J is still a freak show and despite his demeanour Toby Greene is just a pure footballer. Throw in Buddy, Gazza, Pendlebury, Dusty, Eddie, Big Joe, Natanui, Cyril, Wingard – there are plenty of players worth the admission ticket. The problem is that they are spread across too many clubs compared to the days of yore, we now need to get 50% more players on the park every week. Unfortunately this means plenty of dross and an ungainly amount of tackling.

    How many wizards will keep coming through as the youngsters get processed through the TAC sausage factory and have every piece of flair extracted and replaced by their defensive mindset!

  17. Fair point on the dynamic players, Sal. I guess my point is more about the coaches who crush their spirits with structures and group think.

    I watch Geelong, who have a bloke as big as a tree at full forward, zig-zagging and handballing across half forward. I find myself yelling out “just kick it” repeatedly.

  18. Sal Ciardulli says

    Certainly with you on the coaches – do you reckon we have enough? I have seen a couple of spare seats in the boxes.

  19. bring back the torp says

    The symptom of scrappy, ugly congestion is destroying the game as a spectacle. Does anyone know any experienced watchers of football who think congestion, 32 players around the ball in close proximity is good, produces a good spectacle?

    Until c. 20 years ago, there was great anticipation before a game on the one-on-one contests -sadly, gone now. Its our swarm against their swarm.

    The cause is the interchange -pull it back to 10 only ; perhaps go to subs. only. Then the game will open up, as normal fatigue develops, like all other sports. Rugby & soccer have only subs., Rugby League only allows 8 interchange. Also, go back to two only on the bench

    AFL attendances have declined significantly, on a per capita basis. Congestion & lower scoring have been a major factor in reducing the game as a spectacle -but the $8,000,000+ pa paid to AFL executives rises inexorably, despite their obvious failures.

  20. Sal Ciardulli says

    Dips – you’d be loving this from Get Stuffed Lyon

    “We’ll bring in Jon Griffin (and ask him) to execute your role. Everyone brings something different to the table.”

  21. Brilliant stuff Sal. Just wish I knew what it meant.

    Remember the R. Keane strategy of “kick the ball long!” (circa 1980) to C. Rock, S. Woodman and M. McClelland? Worked pretty well for the Friars.

    Torp – spot on. The interchange is a farce now. At every throw in there is a grand migration of players on and off the field. Its like watching a David Attenborough documentary on the wildebeest of the Serengeti.

  22. Agree 100% Dips. And bring back the torpedo is on the money. Let the last quarter be a survival of the fittest. The “structures” would erode during the game allowing the cream to rise to the top.

  23. Interesting article Dips,.
    I play, very casually a bit of tennis ? ; but when I overthink the technical side of skill and strategy, I feel constrained. And likewise in art, the more I know in regards to technique etc the less free I feel.
    In both footy and art I get it.
    … I think it was Judd I heard talking somewhere earlier this year saying how he played his best football when his mind was empty of conscious thought, I’m not quoting him but it resonated because I was working on something at that time and I couldn’t help but notice the parallel.

  24. Pamela Sherpa says

    My question is – Why are so many people, being so highly paid, to stuff the game up ?

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