Football’s Messiah Complex Lives On

The modern football ‘industry’ tries very hard to portray itself as a serious business run on serious business lines. The jargon of the boardroom has long since infiltrated the change room. No club CEO would be caught dead without his full complement of KPI’s , spreadsheets and mission statements. Sports administration is taught alongside MBA’s in places of serious learning.

There’s no mucking around now folks. In case you missed the point, this is serious.

Aren’t we all so professional nowadays? So rational?

But when it comes to the (near) annual ritual of the slaying of the coach, football clubs remind us that they remain a very different creature to how they might present for the sponsors. No matter how many businessmen are drawn into football, they seem unable to change the primal nature of the beast. In fact, if they stay involved long enough history suggests they’ll go native with the best of them.

The very first coach appointed was also the first one fired, and so it has continued down through the ages. All coaches know it’s a matter of when the end will come, not if.

Since only one club ever ends a season really satisfied, it was ever thus, and will likely always be.

Particularly given that, for all the ways the coach’s job description has changed,  the essence of  the coach’s role in the scheme of club life seems little evolved since the days of Worrall and McHale . Sure, modern game plans are much more complex. The AFL head coach is now a manager of a team of coaches as much as a strategist himself. In theory, he is now meant to be some sort of CEO of a kicking and catching assembly line.

But in their hearts, footy clubs still seem inexorably drawn to the notion that the coach will be the messiah.

This effect is heightened if the coach in question was once a great player.

Yes, you need the playing list. You need the proper facilities. You need the money to pay for them. Everyone at the club will place hand on heart and sing to the script. We all must play our part. We’re in it together.

But when expectations (realistic or not) aren’t satisfied, when the supporters begin to howl, when the media pack begins to circle, who’s most likely to pay the price?

As they say, you can’t sack the whole playing list. And boards aren’t renowned for voting themselves out of existence.

With this year’s version of the Festival of Sacked Coaches off to a flying start, it would seem timely to consider recent events. How calmly and dispassionately have these professional clubs dealt with coaching appointments?

Last year’s drama was all about Essendon. Matthew Knights had been a star player, but for another club. When injuries hit, when results were wildly inconsistent, when the supporters’ ire grew more vocal, we found out who really was one of the family and who wasn’t. A genuinely Essendon club hero became available and we all know what happened. At enormous expense.

Scroll forward 12 months later. Injuries have struck again. The team’s form has again fluctuated. They probably won’t make the finals. You could legitimately ask what had all the drama and cost really achieved? But Sir James can rest assured he will have more dispensations available than that Richmond bloke.

Let us turn to another beloved son.

Michael Voss, despite no previous coaching experience, was essentially given free rein in football matters as Brisbane sought to rebuild after the Matthews era. It seemed to work for a season. Since then, Voss has been integral to some of the more spectacularly disastrous list management decisions of the modern era (anyone say Fev?). Yet Voss looks likely to hold his job.

It pays to be a favourite son.

Even when expectations are met the allure of the golden child seems irresistible. Collingwood hadn’t won a flag for too long (again,) and Mick was struggling. Bucks was waiting in the wings. A deal was brokered (perhaps). Then Mick buggered things up by winning a flag. And he might win another. We’re yet to see how that situation plays itself out.

Dean Bailey played at the top level, but he was a journeyman rather than a star. And he played for Essendon but ended up coaching Melbourne.

Melbourne were in trouble (again). For two years the club decided they had to play for draft picks (just remember, Andy D has assured us there’s no such thing as tanking). Some likely types were drafted and the team showed signs of improvement. Expectations were probably inflated coming into this season. Like most middling teams, they won well against some of the lesser teams but copped beltings from the better ones.  Then they made the trip to Geelong and the rest is now (bitter) history.

The Melbourne situation adds some extra dramatic twists. Most particularly, a President who has become a quasi spiritual leader as he battles for his own life while he fights for the club’s interests. The President is a favourite son who has heard the club’s call. The name of yet another favourite son constantly pops up. He’s a friend of the President. A lot of the key players in the drama are long-time friends. Except for the coach just sacked.

If we take Gary Lyon at his word, you suspect his head tells him to stay out of it. Yet knowing what his mate is going through, how could he (anyone?) refuse him? If the Pres is struggling it’s entirely understandable, but who wants to be the one who tells him? It’s hard to think of a more excruciatingly difficult circumstance.

If we believe the reports, the main Melbourne concerns on Friday were with the CEO and the Football Manager. And that the players had got involved. They were allegedly siding with the coach. Come Monday, the coach is sacked, the CEO remains, and the Football Manager is nowhere to be seen.

From outside, it looks like a mess.

Try fitting all of that into a spreadsheet.

Many crucial facts in all the situations cited remain hidden from public knowledge. All judgements of the rights and wrongs of individual circumstance need to be tempered with that knowledge. And all clubs have their own versions of these events.

But what remains incontrovertible is the passion involved, feeding the drama and clouding the judgements of otherwise sane people. Football connects to the devout on so many levels. It fires the passion of the fans. Some end up playing for the club. Others end up on the board. None remain immune despite their best intentions.

The AFL will continue to talk the business talk. So will the clubs. It’s what is expected within the terms of the thinking constructed. And there is a lot of money at stake now.

But in their hearts the fans – and by extension the clubs – will continue to dream of the messiah coming.

What price the next favourite son?


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. John Butler says

    He’s not the Messiah. He’s just a naughty Mick.

  2. ‘Favorite sons’ have a scrappy record at best when it comes to coaching. Polly, KB, Jezza (esp the second time), Tony Shaw, and the Weed captained Collingwood to premierships and coached them to spoons, the succession of ex-Hawks at Hawthorn between Joyce and Clarkson….

    Also there are obviously degrees of favoritesonicality, as the Coodabeens would call it. In this current saga no-one has bothered mentioning that the suddenly-invisible Football Manager played about 60 games for Melbourne, or that the ‘dream candidate’ currently otherwise engaged was also a Demon for one season.

  3. John Butler says


    Absolutely correct. When it comes to favourite sons, some are more favoured than others.

    And sometimes they can be adopted.

  4. good article and read- how many favourite sons have richmond had over the last 25 years?

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