Book Preview: A Season Like No Other by Ashley Browne



This is an edited extract from A Season Like No Other: AFL 2020 by Ashley Browne published by Hardie Grant Books available in store 17 March




The days before a new AFL season are usually a time of anticipation at the AFL’s Docklands headquarters. Months of planning are about to pay off as footy starts again. Not so many years ago, the off-season was just that. No longer. The season has hardly ended when the ‘new season’ begins, with trade week, the National Draft, the release of the fixture, and rule changes suggested and presented.


With all that behind the League’s staff, normal transmission is restored: which games will they be attending on opening weekend? Who is running the in-house tipping competition? Which players have they selected in their AFL fantasy team? And tickets? So many ticket requests.


But the coronavirus had killed any frivolity. The game was facing the greatest existential threat in its history and the mood was grim. A glance at chief executive Gillon McLachlan’s diary indicated the gravity of the situation. On Tuesday, March 17, two days before Richmond and Carlton were due to open the season at the MCG, a phone hook-up of the AFL Commission took place as McLachlan ran through the various scenarios in play. But that ‘gathering’ was just the scene-setter for the events of the following day, events that were pivotal.


The day started with another Webex meeting, this time between McLachlan and the 18 club chief executives, followed by an hour-long Commission meeting to discuss the ramifications of starting the season versus shutting it down. The Commission met twice in the afternoon to consider a briefing from the Federal Government.


Later that day, McLachlan would meet on the phone with the club presidents and chairmen to explain the decision the League had reached. That evening, just 24 hours before the planned opening bounce, and with the Tigers and the Blues about to name their teams, he would announce the dramatic decision.


For much of the day, McLachlan had been leaning towards a delay to the opening round, at a minimum. Australia had recorded 77 new cases of coronavirus on March 17. That figure jumped to 113 the next day.  It was a hugely concerning number that added doubt for the League as it determined which way to proceed. Yes, the season could start as scheduled, but significant disruption seemed likely; in fact, as the hours raced by, it seemed inevitable.


That was the gist of the advice the commissioners received from government and health authorities that afternoon. Take every precaution, use every protocol at your disposal, and we won’t stand in your way of playing as long as it safe for everybody. As it stood, the AFL and its players were well-placed to bear the proportionate risks that come with playing a contact sport. It was also clear they had the discipline to adhere to whatever protocols may be applied; but at some stage in the future that may not be the case. The start of the AFL season was not all that had to be considered. The AFLW season had two rounds to complete before the finals. The window for finishing that season as scheduled was rapidly closing.


AFLPA chief executive Paul Marsh admitted to huge concerns about the season starting and a conclusion being reached to the AFLW season. “We had government health experts there for the players and the real issue was their health and safety and also for their families. There was so much unknown,” he said. He and McLachlan conferred several times that day and his recollection was that there was a point when they both agreed not to start the season. “We certainly had a view that it was inevitable we were going to stop the season. There was an element saying that if it’s going to stop and stop quickly, then why start in the first place? I remember saying to Gill that he might regret starting this.”


Victorian Tourism, Sport and Major Events Minister Martin Pakula’s counsel was to get the season underway. “My view,” he recalled, “was that you get as many games away as you can. Every game you play now is one fewer that you have to play on the other side of this. That wasn’t a government to competition conversation, mind you. It was just my point of view, having had some sense of what was going on.”


It was mid-afternoon on that Wednesday that McLachlan knew he had to make a call. The entire community, players, fans, stakeholders, needed to know. He had taken advice from everyone who mattered. Key lieutenant Travis Auld, the League’s general manager for clubs, fixturing and broadcasting, was another who urged McLachlan to at least get the season underway. “My personal view was we had to get started because if we didn’t, then the hardest thing later on would have been to finally get going,” Auld explained. “But, understandably, people had different views.”


Those in the inner sanctum recall one conversation that might have finally swayed McLachlan to get the season underway. It was a deep and passionate discussion between Collingwood president Eddie McGuire and Western Bulldogs president Peter Gordon. Gordon was of the view that the competition should be paused. McGuire took the opposing view and drew on his deep knowledge of and passion for the history of the game in making his point. “I made this impassioned argument with the guys,” McGuire said. “Football had come through two world wars and economic depressions. This [the history] was something we needed to hang our hat on.” Those in McLachlan’s office listening in as that discussion took place can still remember it vividly. “It was incredible to be a fly on the wall for that one,” Auld said.


Having taken both sides of the argument into consideration, McLachlan gave the start of the season his tick of approval. “We made the decision to go ahead because we believed it was safe to do so and because we believed that any risk was proportionate. It was important to get out of the blocks and put a stake in the sand that we could come back to if the game was put into hiatus,” he recalled. “But that didn’t mean at different times that  I thought the game wasn’t at risk.”


McLachlan immediately called Marsh to let him know the season would proceed and while the players’ boss was of a mind that the season be delayed, that view clearly wasn’t shared by his membership. A survey of the players revealed that 88 per cent wanted to play the opening round. Marsh recalled the prevailing view of the players at that time: “‘You couldn’t see the virus. You couldn’t feel it, so why wouldn’t we play?’ They just needed to go into the season with their eyes open as to the risk and that’s what we tried to give them an understanding of.”


McLachlan’s much-anticipated confirmation that the season would commence took place just 24 hours before the Richmond-Carlton game was due to start, but there was much more to his address; he stressed the seriousness of the situation, not just for sport, but for the Australian community, noting that the game, at all levels, was unified in its decision-making, that the game’s finances—at head office and in clubland—would be challenged, and that all involved needed to be “agile” and “resilient” as the situation evolved.


“This is—and will be—a difficult time for the whole of the Australian public. And we know that the impact of coronavirus will affect some in our community in a much more serious way than for others.


“In facing this unprecedented and difficult time, all of our clubs, players, broadcasters and corporate partners are determined and united. We are determined to be part of the whole of community response to slow this virus down—and in doing so, help the broader community and our health systems to cope. And we are united across our industry in making hard decisions necessary to protect the health and livelihoods in our football family.


“I want to reinforce this message to all of our fans and members.  We know what football means to everyone. And we understand how difficult these decisions are for you—in particular during a time of uncertainty and anxiety. Australian Rules Football is resilient. Football has had many challenges and despite the size of this one, football will find a way through. We are a game, but we are not the main game. The main game is looking after the community and keeping people safe and that is the clear priority for everyone at the moment. For football families like all families.


“At the moment we know there is a lot of uncertainty but one thing we know is we will get a season away. The circumstances mean it will look different, but our commitment is for it to be fair. The reality is, we don’t have all the answers at the moment. The situation is changing by the minute and we need to stay agile in our decision-making. But what I do know is football has been around for over 160 years, we have been challenged and tested but footy will find a way… we always do.”


That last line reflected McGuire’s strongly put view: that the game would prevail, no matter what assault it faced.


In a practical sense, all the state leagues and all of footy’s talent programs would be delayed until the end of May. What had not been expected was that AFL game-time would also be reduced: the 20-minute plus time-on quarters would be reduced to 16 plus time-on, a 20 per cent reduction. The variations allowed for greater flexibility with the timing of matches, and McLachlan explained there was the clear potential that the season may need to be postponed and then resumed at any time through the year. Also, there was every chance teams would be asked to play more than one game per week. By playing shorter quarters, players would be better placed to deal with the increased workloads that might come their way.


It was an outcome that Steve Hocking, the AFL’s general manager of football, helped shape. “Health and safety were at the forefront [of that call]. It was protecting the game and making sure we had the ability to be agile when the time came to condense the season,” he said. There were conflicting views from coaches and some commentators. Their view was that a more obvious solution was to keep the standard 20-minute quarters but reduce players’ workload by having six or eight players on the interchange bench.


Hocking preferred to maintain as much of the status quo as possible:

“Where we could, we wanted to keep the traditional structure without putting extra players into the system. The more players you have access to, it can really start to change the balance of output in a team. The fairness and integrity of the competition was best preserved by reducing the length of the quarters.”


By mid-year, when it seemed the crisis surrounding the pandemic had eased, there were calls for the AFL to buckle and restore quarter lengths to 20 minutes; the same calls persisted into the finals series. But the AFL rarely makes such fundamental changes in-season, so 16-minute quarters would remain throughout.


At the AFLPA, the decision to play shorter quarters was welcomed.  But the 17-game season decision still rankled, and its ramifications would be the cause of dispute between the League and the players. Marsh said he couldn’t understand why the AFL had to make that decision at such an early stage. “Clearly it was going to have a massive impact on the game by cutting the number of games and [the] flow-on [of lost] revenue. Not just for the players, but for everyone. But the players’ view was, ‘why did they need to make that decision at that time?’ We said we’d work with the AFL to do what was needed to get the season away, but the reduction to 17 games was not something we agreed upon and we were angry about that,” he said.


Furthermore, the League’s decision was made before Marsh was able to meet with the players. Some were unhappy about being kept out of the discussion of what was a pretty fundamental element of the season’s structure. “They were fired up about it because there just wasn’t enough information and reasons given at that point about why such a big decision needed to be made,” he said.


The AFL also took the significant decision to curtail the AFLW home-and-away season immediately but to commence an expanded finals series. Instead of the planned top four (the leading two teams from each conference) playing off, an eight-team finals series would commence immediately. It was a decision that created havoc in AFLW ranks. The clubs were well down the path of preparing for one opponent when their circumstances were changed dramatically. For eight clubs it meant planning for a new opponent. For six others it meant their seasons had ended prematurely and abruptly.


In his media statement, McLachlan explained why the AFL was pressing forward with this “unprecedented” season. “We …embark on this journey with clear instruction from the government that all industry and all parts of society need to keep moving and we simply cannot stand still.” His proclamation was greeted with a mixture of relief and joy. The nation was entering a period of anxiety and uncertainty, but at least there would be some footy to look forward to.


But they weren’t pumping their fists at AFL House. Trepidation and anxiety were entrenched. “I thought we’d have a rocky road ahead of us,” Auld said. “But I had no idea of the gravity of what we were about to encounter.”




If you are interested in purchasing a copy of this book, you can find more details at the Hardie Grant website.







The Tigers (Covid) Almanac 2020 will be published in 2021. It will have all the usual features – a game by game account of the Tigers season – and will also include some of the best Almanac writing from the Covid winter.  Pre-order HERE



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