Carlton 2018: Every rebuild can be unhappy in its own way

If free advice could be monetised, then the Carlton Football Club would have finished season 2018  as billionaires. Whilst the 2018 Blues lacked for goals, let alone wins, they hardly lacked for the tender ministrations of football’s febrile commentary ranks. This is only to be expected. When you turn in your worst statistical season for over a century, people are inclined to notice. But to merely point out the Blues struggled is to trade in the bleeding obvious. It’s not like Carlton supporters needed to be told.


Revisiting this onslaught of opinion, what is strikingly absent has been any viable proffered alternatives.  As is obligatory when things go awry, the coach’s future has been given a good going over. Broadly, there’s been a vague prevailing sentiment that “someone must pay”, without specifying who or what. But despite most of footy media’s finest having had a crack, it must be said that all the furore produced little real illumination. Which probably confirms just how deep a hole the Blues have dug for themselves in the 21st century. There are no easy answers to where the Blues currently find themselves.


So what are Blues fans to make of the season we claimed our fifth wooden spoon in sixteen years? There is no point painting a year that contained more hundred point defeats than victories as anything but a wretched experience for the Carlton faithful. The crucial question is whether all this pain is really serving a longer term purpose?


It is through gritted teeth that I submit that it does. Unlike the preceding Malthouse era, who’s predominant characteristic was entropy, I can still understand what Carlton is currently attempting, and how they’re going about it. In his spirited appearance on Footy Classified, Stephen Silvagni nailed the current Carlton mindset: it’s no great challenge to build a list to finish mid-ladder. This is what Carlton has recently settled for, whilst kidding itself it was a serious contender. It is an altogether tougher task to construct a premiership list. This ambition is more like a Carlton I would recognise.


That philosophy has guided the list upheaval undertaken in the last three years. In turning over 42 players, you will inevitably release some who still hold value. The challenge lies in judging whether they hold enough to get you where you want to go, when you’re ready to get there. The exercise will largely live or die by getting enough of those tough calls right.


The catch with this is that progress will not happen in a neat, linear fashion. As you offload those mid-level players you will generally be replacing them with youngsters. These youngsters will need time to develop. Not everyone you choose will work out. No club has ever been perfect in its drafting and trading. Without necessarily admitting it, or fully realising it, Carlton reached a critical-mass with its list this season.


That was made worse by trading Bryce Gibbs. Despite that, this decision remains a no-brainer. Free agency is no friend of the embattled club. Its dictates meant Gibbs either left on our terms last summer, or on Adelaide’s terms next summer. At least we extracted the best deal we could. By the by, should anyone doubt the value of Gibbs’ Carlton career, just consider what transpired in his absence.


To add to that, our best player from last season, Sam Docherty, barely got his boots on for pre-season before he did his ACL. Last season, with only Ed Curnow of our best six senior players missing many games, we had six wins. Before a ball was bounced in anger this season, those six senior players had become four. We couldn’t afford many more injuries.


Inevitably, we got more injuries. What I saw hilariously described as our “injury alibi” soon dogged any intentions for this season. Marc Murphy and Matthew Kruezer struggled to get on the field. This left the main midfield burden on the shoulders of Patrick Cripps and Ed Curnow. Both were mighty, but outnumbered. Matt Kennedy and Darcy Lang were recruited to provide some early 20’s bodies in the middle. Both were hurt early and only returned to reasonable fitness late. All this ensured a very steep learning curve for draftees Paddy Dow and Lochie O’Brien. Zac Fisher was the big improver… until he broke his leg in round 18.


The shining light of last season, our defensive group, was similarly decimated. Having lost its chief quarterback in Docherty, they continued to go down one by one. Tom Williamson, who debuted so promisingly last season, wasn’t sighted due to a back problem. Ciaran Byrne, who might have provided some run out of defence, did his quad in round 2, only returning when the season was shot. Caleb Marchbank looked impeded after hurting his ankle early on. Lochie Plowman was done by mid-year. Alex Silvagni, a useful role player last season, would finish his career without returning to the AFL field. This left the mercurial Liam Jones as a somewhat problematic defensive lynchpin, until he did his knee and missed the final five rounds. And so it went.


With our midfield and defence in tatters, we couldn’t really take any advantage of more promising developments up forward. Apart from the efforts of Paddy Cripps, the season’s shining light was Charlie Curnow’s blossoming. To kick 34 goals up front of the rabble we often were is no small achievement. After two seasons largely lost to injury, we also finally got an extended look at Harry Mackay. There was much to like. Young Tom De Koning also showed a bit in his end of season cameo. But any forward line will struggle if you can’t get it to them.


As injuries and losses mounted, Brendon Bolton’s honeymoon with many Carlton fans inevitably soured. This wasn’t helped by the fact the club left him as almost its sole public spokesman for much of the season. Trotted out after each loss, Bolton could really only restate variations on the ‘we’re in it for the long haul’ reality of the situation. Left to rely on selling ‘The Journey’ more often than a season of Oprah, even the most gifted orator would have struggled.


In spite of this season, I remain a Bolton believer. I think he has demonstrated he can get a team to play to a plan. In 2016, he inherited a squad short on kicking skills and riddled with poor decision-making ability. As a response, he introduced a playing style that accentuated careful ball movement and time in possession. We were limiting the early damage. This style was largely retained through 2017. It produced 13 wins across those  two seasons, with relatively few big losses.


There was a clear intent to be more adventurous prior to this season. In our practice matches we were much more aggressive with our ball movement. That continued into our opening five goal burst against Richmond in round one. In hindsight, those five goals just raised expectations which made what followed seem worse.


Even the best game plan is at the mercy of available personnel. With injuries accumulating from that very first game, warning signs about our ability to maintain the faster tempo came quickly. Rather than focus on those opening five goals, as many did, the Blues’ brains trust would have been concerned with the ease Richmond ran through us in the second half of that season opener. After ragged follow up performances against the Suns and Pies, the extent of the problem was laid bare when North destroyed us in round four. We just lacked the depth of ability to carry off the more aggressive style.


Interestingly, we never fully retreated to the ways of 2016/17. Even through most of the heaviest losses that followed, attempts to play faster persisted. We just generally did it poorly. Only occasionally were the defensive shutters fully raised. If Bolton felt any pressure to sandbag his position tactically, he wasn’t obviously showing it.


I would ask those screaming for the coach’s head to consider recent historical precedence at Carlton. In 2002, an injury riddled team collected the club’s first wooden spoon. The coach of the time, Wayne Brittain, also lacked the kudos a high profile playing career brings you. With the salary cap crisis looming, Jack Elliot sacked Brittain, installing a ‘name’ coach as a final roll of the dice to save his own presidency. Denis Pagan achieved little in his time at Carlton. Despite this, we basically repeated the exercise when we appointed Malthouse. it would take Carlton a full 13 years to recognise the reality of its situation. That’s a lot of wasted time and money.


People are justified to remain sceptical about the Blues. We have had a very poor 2018. A women’s footy program that offered much early proved no more resilient than Bri Davey’s knee. The previous summer saw a CEO replaced without any of the transparency that had been promised to members. That Mark LoGuidice remains the lowest profile Carlton president in living memory isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean he will need to produce some results eventually if he is to retain credibility. The same applies to the club as a whole. The main thing that can be said for Carlton at present is that we at least appear to be sticking to the stated plan.


This isn’t to suggest there are any guarantees with the current strategy. Rebuilds are largely an act of faith in their early stages. Young players can show potential that never fully realises. You will inevitably get some picks wrong. And bad luck with injury can thwart even the ones you get right. At some stage we will need to attract the right free agents. That generally only happens now if you hold some appeal as a workplace. Much remains to be done in all respects.


Crucially, Carlton needs to figure out what it is going to stand for as an organisation. That will require much more than continuing to boast about the past, while offering up boiler plate vision statements about future inclusiveness. The worst aspect of the Elliot legacy is a club left with a divided soul. Many who prospered under Jack continue to speak of that period with a rose-coloured nostalgia that borders on wilful blindness. In part, that reflects the failure of subsequent administrations to heal wounds and rebuild relationships. There is little point offering visions of inclusiveness if you can’t exercise it within your own family. Equally, we need to accept our old ways don’t work anymore, and they’re not making a comeback. That isn’t entirely a bad thing, if we really think about it.


So as painful as much of this season was, no likely respite will be found in sacking the coach or changing the president. The club clearly didn’t expect this season to be as bad as it was. Football is a human enterprise, not an exact science. We need to learn from what went wrong this year and do better. We are three years into a process that has generally taken five to eight years for others. The clubs who have consistently prospered in recent times have all opted for stability and patience. Neither of these qualities were abundant traits of the old Carlton. But times have changed. If we can’t change with them, we consign ourselves to a bleak future.


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About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has passed his 40th year as a Carlton member.


  1. I also hope some alternatives can be found JB.

    Because Percy is so much more fun when the melancholy is lifted by a Carlton victory.

    At the moment a chain of three handballs and a short pass is enough to turn him into a beaming littl boy again.

    He reminds me of a literary character but I just can’t quite nail which one.

    The competition needs a healthy Carlton. I think in the re-make they should style themselves as the maverick club. Appoint Dane Swan as coach and Sam Pang as chairman of selectors.

  2. Percy saw us complete three handballs and a pass?

    Can he send me the replay?

    Sam Pang’s career progression from chauffeur to chairman of selectors would be a unique one.

    Not sure about Swanny. Recent experience with ex-Collingwood types isn’t promising.

  3. Well argued JB. Reminds me of the old joke about the tourist lost in the west of Ireland asking for directions. “If I wanted to get there, I wouldn’t start from here.” 10 years after the GFC you have become the Lehmann Brothers of footy clubs, stuck with the robber baron legacy.
    With all the focus on the unintended consequences of free agency and the desirability of ‘destination’ clubs, I am intrigued by the Brisbane case study. After the Matthews years they seemed to have become permanent basket cases, but seem to have swum against the tide. Beams and Cameron added skills and experience.
    Is Fagan the cream on a well-baked strategic cake, or has he created the recipe? He seems to have a gravitas that the boyish Bolton struggles with.
    Would love a Brisbane knacker to give us some insights. Why do players flock to Brisbane and the best rookies stay, while 100kms to the south the lost tribes of Southport continue their exodus? Please explain.

  4. “If I wanted to get there, I wouldn’t start from here.”


    Re Brisbane, the influx is only a recent one. They lost plenty before that – cf. Yeo, Polec, Docherty, et al.

    As for the Suns? Meh.

  5. For what it is worth, JB, I am reasonably bullish about Carlton’s future, despite being in Hobart to witness North’s pounding of Carlton.
    And in some ways, more bullish about the Blues than the Roos. Exhibit A: the McKay twins. Harry played 13 games this season, but Ben did not add to his solitary appearance in 2017. Brad Scott’s refusal to play youngsters as been a recurring theme in what will ultimately be an unsatisfactory tenure at the club.
    2018 was indeed a perfect storm and inexperience resulting in a wooden spoon for the Blues. But with the youngsters a year older and the possibility of McGovern arriving, I really believe (without any sarcasm) that the only way is up.
    I, too, am a believer in B Bolton. Neither Norm Smith nor RDB would have achieved a better result this season.
    And I just love an article that uses the phrase “in tatters”!

  6. In tatters. Aspirations. Plans. Season. That was 2018.

    But hopefully not hope.

    Bring on 2019.

  7. Yep, I’ve seen worse lists, John. The Gibbs trade essentially brought O’Brien, De Koning (you got him for free out of the subsequent Western Bulldogs pick swap) and Matt Kennedy to the club. All have the potential to be long term best 22 players. After fitness, the culture stuff can be a bit tricky but winning does wonders in that regard.

  8. Thoughtful and thorough as always, JB.

    Isn’t hindsight a wonderful explainer of variables? Reading the stories “explaining” Richmond’s 2017 and even the Doggies’ 2016 and Crows’ 2018, I can’t help thinking of Weddings, Parties, Anything’s “Mondays experts.”

    Staggering amount of scorn thrown Carlton’s way. When there are 17 other clubs also trying to win games of footy.

    Particularly when no one knows with certainty what will work and what will not – what the magic ingredients are. At least M Malthouse & D Pagan knew what had worked for them previously – as an outsider it strikes me as odd that those two are regularly chopped down. Did they get rough treatment from an impatient Carlton?

    The fact the no one knows is both frustrating and alluring. So many moving parts (injury, form, relationships, the bounce of the oval ball).

    I hope you get to enjoy your footy side again soon (not too soon, and not too much).

    JTH – love the Maverick Club idea. Fill the list with Tasmanians, employ an all female coaching staff.

  9. Dave, poor old Bryce. Moves to the runners-up and has to endure another vacant September.

    But you’re right, we did well out of that trade. And Bryce is relieved of having to be yet another of our over-burdened messiahs.

    E Reg, we’re all susceptible to Monday’s Experts syndrome. Not least some of our noisiest media pundits.

    Pagan and Malthouse were symptoms a of club that had lost its way. As a consequence, there was a lot of frustration to be shared around. We really just need to move beyond that now.

    Cheers, all.

  10. G’day JB,

    As a St Kilda supporter, I understand how you feel. I am disappointed with Saints, on field performances this year as we finished at the 16th…

    Developing young players and free agent issues are what we have too. Like you have trusts on Bolton, I do the same towards Alan Richardson. But I extremely want him to coach on the BENCH whole season in 2019.

    Patience seems to need for both of us.



  11. Yoshi, if patience really is a virtue, I suspect we’re both going to be extremely virtuous by the time our respective teams come good.


  12. JB
    I won’t pretend any in-depth knowledge about Carlton, but I reckon you’ve called it correctly that for the first time the club that “never rebuilds” has genuinely called time on the mediocre performers and the declining stars and started again with the young talent. Inevitably it’s going to be a hard slog but acknowledging the need for the fundamental rebuild is the necessary first step. The good news is that footy’s a young person’s game. Today’s skinny kids quickly become tomorrow’s core group of A-graders aged 20-25. As you conclude, if the club can provide a stable, patient and encouraging environment, a bright future mightn’t be far off.
    As always, a very measured, dispassionate analysis.

  13. Yvette Wroby says

    Love your work as always John. When Carlton as a club aren’t living in delusion-land (Malthouse coaching was always gonna fall over) then they can build on where they are at rather than where they want to be. They seem to have heads down butts up and are doing the hard work from top to bottom of the Club. They are all learning on the job… together. Here’s hoping for next year except against Saints.

  14. Stainless, the Tigers stand as one of the shining examples the Blues need to follow (what have we come to when I’m saying that!).

    After 2016, the old Richmond would have just sacked Hardwick, left other areas as they were, and started all over again. By trusting your vision you are now reaping the rewards. A mature Richmond? Who’s have thought?

    Yvette, I think the club’s best chance of recovery is that very process of all learning together. They need to rebuild the closeness we had back in our glory days. That’s Richmond’s great strength at present.

    Thanks for the comments.

  15. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    JB – I really want to empathize. I mean you’ve written a measured critique, but part of me fears you’ve got the finger in the dyke. Then again, you don’t have much choice but to be patient and take care of your teeth.
    Might be time to invest in a mouth guard for the next 5 years of spectating !

  16. Phil, like I said, no promises in any of this.

    The only thing I’m confident in is that the raw talent on the list is better than 3 years ago. Whether Bolton is the coach to take us all the way is yet to be proven. Whether SOS and the club can fill the gaps that need filling remains to be seen. And a bit of luck would also help.

    But at least we now have a plan that has some hope of working. Anyone who wants to challenge that plan will need to produce some extremely concrete proposals. Not just more of the same messiah/quick fix bull dust that masqueraded as leadership for far too long.

    BTW, do I detect just a note of schadenfreude?

  17. There’s not a lot new in there that the true believers don’t already know. Yet, you’ve not only sided with us, but gone on to express our current situation (not plight) much more eloquently that most of us could.

    Thank you.

  18. Thanks for the comment, Camel.

    The irony is that there hasn’t been really anything new (in modern footy terms) for the club to do, either. It just took them the best part of two decades to start doing it.


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