Footy Talk: Mick Malthouse and Sun Tzu talk tactics (mostly off-field)

By John Butler

Sun Tzu: ancient Chinese warrior general, author of the Art of War and in many ways the original Director of Coaching.
Michael Malthouse: as we all know, is soon to be Collingwood Director of Coaching.
In his never-ending quest to bring world’s best practice to the Lexus Centre, President Ed has hired Sun Tzu as a consultant, to advise the Pies on their transition plan. Mick’s not initially thrilled at the thought.

MM: Greetings Sun, your reputation precedes you.

ST: As does yours Mr Malthouse.

MM: Call me Mick. I’m going to be honest; despite my penchant for Chinese philosophy, I’m a little dubious about your relevance to our current situation.

ST: (smiling like a shark) Football is about managing conflict. The nature of conflict is essentially unchanged through time. Many like to believe differently, but it has usually been to their cost.

MM: Hmm, when you put it like that, we may have something to talk about. I have a feeling conflict will wear many masks during the next couple of seasons.

ST: There’s no need to talk like you’re in a Charlie Chan film Mick; and save any parables about patient oxen for the media. I presume you’re making a not-so-veiled reference to young Mr Buckley and the coaching “transition”.

MM: Well… is this discussion off the record?

ST: It stays between us. Discretion is essential in my line of work.

MM: Well, I confess Eddie sold me at the time with the offer of a guaranteed job for five years; that plus the feeling if I said no I could be out the door immediately. But the more I think about it, the more misgivings I have. I have every intention of trying to bag a premiership in the next couple of years; but if I do, what then? Just hand the ship over to Bucks? That would go against the grain. Then where does that leave us? (increasingly agitated) And this director of coaching position. What the hell does that really entail? The COACH directs all the assistant coaches. Is Bucks really going to want me as a back seat driver? Especially if I’m still harbouring a desire for his job. I see trouble ahead, but we’ve backed ourselves into a corner with all the publicity this thing’s had.

ST: This is not good. A sage commander is one who is at peace with himself and free of distraction. To be otherwise is courting disaster; just look at Richmond.

MM: My thoughts exactly. I used to play there; I’ve no desire to go through that sort of purgatory. This all reminds me of Pagan’s saying about dancing with your sister- nobody’s really happy. You’re the so-called expert, how do we get out of this?

ST: Firstly, you must have a good appreciation of yourself. It sounds like not understanding your true feelings got you into this difficulty in the first place. That said, if you’ve come to your right mind, the situation can still be salvaged. Are you sure about what it is you desire?

MM: I am now. I’d be kidding myself to pretend I still didn’t want to run the show.

ST: The next thing is to understand those who oppose you, and through that understanding, see the patterns of the environment you work in. What thoughts do you have in that regard?

MM: Well, first there’s the Prez. He obviously holds a torch for Bucks, or we wouldn’t be in this mess to start with; so he has to be placated. As for Bucks, he’s never lacked ambition. He may be happy to sit back and soak in the scenery for a while, but I doubt that he’ll go long without putting in his five cents worth. It’s hard to see him being happy pumping up footys and washing jumpers.

ST: You’ll need to be delicate then. Another thing a sage commander must do is get control of his anger, lest he damage his own purpose. That means no more blow-ups like the post 2003 Grand Final spray. Also, you’ll need the media on-side if you’re to get out of this, so turn down the snark factor at press conferences.

MM: (sighs) Every time I watch Neon Leon seize up in a final, I regret that 2003 spray. I was feeling the pressure of expectation at the time… Do I really have to be nice to the press?

ST: Absolutely. Discipline will be essential now. You need to convince everyone you’re still the best man for the job. That means portraying yourself in the best light vis a vis Mr Buckley. This is a man who got upset when people called him FIGJAM, so there must be some chinks in the armour. How did that nickname come about in the first place?

MM: Because as a young bloke he showed the people skills of Tony Abbott. I’m starting to get the picture.

ST: The trick is to shape how others see things. If you influence their perception of events, they are more likely to come to conclusions favourable to your purpose. This is especially so if you coax them into thinking the only outcomes possible are those you seek; hence, the importance of the press in this process.

MM: I’m starting to think I could have used you as a forward coach in times past Sun.

ST: I know, I know. I came up with this stuff 2400 years ago. The whole advertising and spin industries are based on these ideas now. If only we had copyright back then… Anyway, I digress. Now to the problem of Eddie; he’ll need to feel he has a stake in whatever outcome is manufactured. Remembering his efforts with the republican movement and Channel Nine- this is someone who can be outmaneuvered.

MM: You’re right. I reckon he’ll be happy so long as he’s convinced it was his idea to start with. But it will be tricky; he’s really keen on Bucks. I’ve always wondered about that, if you catch my drift.

ST: Not really my field. If you want to go there, I know a bloke called Sigmund who’ll be more helpful.

MM: Nah, it would just be a distraction from the task at hand. So if I read you right, I need to orchestrate things so Bucks has enough rope to hang himself, without anyone figuring out what I’m up to.

ST: And see if you can undermine his confidence along the way. Sow the seeds of doubt. Subtlety is the key. The best conquests are always achieved with the minimum aggression necessary.

MM: (deadpan) I thought Ross Lyon already tried that this year.

ST: (smiling) Typical St. Kilda; always overdoing things. You seem to be feeling chipper now. It occurs that I know someone who specialises in this sort of work. An Italian guy, goes by the name of Machiavelli. I think I have his number somewhere in my Blackberry.

MM: That could be useful. Thanks Sun, this has been a most enlightening talk.

ST: We aim to please.

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. Phil Dimitriadis says

    Great piece JB. You captured the psychology of ‘Grand Master Mick’ beautifully.Loved the line about Tony Abbot’s people skills. Apt analogy!

  2. John Butler says

    Thanks Phil

    To show how fast paced the modern AFL world is, since I wrote this it seems the “Lexus” Centre is no more.

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