General Footy Writing: Bells are ringing in City of Churches

On warbling magpies, Adelaide’s wheels, Didak’s revenge, Burton’s orthodoxy and Port’s head jobs …


Here are some things you don’t need to know.

If you hear magpies warbling at 3am, it’s the female of the species on heat. She’s saying that she’s fed and fat and ready to propagate the species. The warble is a come-on-guys call, show me what you’ve got.

A rule of thumb in the southern hemisphere is that this behaviour continues up until the first full moon in August. Then the deed is done and we have six weeks of magpies dive-bombing humans to keep them away from their nest. After that brief six-week period, magpies are normal and friendly again for the rest of the year.

The best way to avert a magpie going for your head is to not linger in their area. Just keep moving through. If you stand there, trying to fend them off, the magpies will think that you are, in fact, a genuine threat.

If you have to cross their path, they’ll attack your highest point. If you are a cyclist, attach a nerdy flag to your bike. If you are walking, put something on the end of a long stick and hold that higher than your head.

But mainly, keep walking. Like snakes or house intruders, they won’t chase you. Make sure that you are not standing between them and their point of exit.

A good axiom for life: Give all of your enemies a clear exit path.


Last weekend was the first full moon in August.

Adelaide’s been travelling well this season, after being regarded by most as one of those teams just there to make up the numbers. After seven wins on the trot against the crap in the comp, and then a walloping from St Kilda, Adelaide smacked Port hard, and then pushed a depleted Geelong to an inch of its life.

Its encounter with Collingwood last Saturday was in many ways season-determining. Win that one, and Adelaide could have gone third and used the rest of the season as a fine-tuning exercise for the finals.

But, no. It was a full moon. Adelaide’s most important player this season, Nathan Bock, was out with a heel problem. And Patrick Dangerfield, the little Mark Ricciuto in the making, was out of the team too.

Two huge blows with enormous consequences.

First, Bock’s absence meant that the flexible interchangeable half-forward/half-back Scott Stevens was grounded in defence. Second, Craig was forced to use the recalled boy wonder, Taylor Walker, for 90 painfully inadequate awful minutes.

Adelaide motor-mouth Chris McDermott claims that Craig has screwed this teenager’s head by subjecting him to the Adelaide system and ignoring his natural talent. That’s a grossly unfair call from Adelaide’s inaugural captain who seems to dislike Neil Craig for reasons that none of us can properly fathom. Previously, McDermott has claimed that Craig’s severe training regime was the cause for player injury and that Craig was achieving his relative success at some cost to the players’ welfare. That, too, was a curious claim from someone who played the game at a full and often reckless pace.

Taylor Walker is a fine athlete with a well-proportioned full-forward’s body, an intuitive sense of the goalposts, an orthodox and almost old-fashioned understanding of his full-forward role (which is a cross between a big-marking forward like Tony Modra and the sharp true lead of someone like Jason Dunstall).  Taylor has the sweet skills and the long arms and a long raking 50-metre deadeye kick to achieve his dreams. But he is only nineteen. He’s still skinny and some parts of his dream may have fallen into place before he’s won a game off his own boot in the big league and certainly before he has been able to cement his place, not in the Adelaide team, but in AFL football.

He’s lucky in a sense that he has Neil Craig as his coach and Adelaide as his team. Craig will not play him until he thinks the team is ready for the kid and the kid is ready for the team. Other AFL teams burn or blaze kids of this ilk to glory or shame in a quick pass. Craig is boring, methodical and slow. But he is also consistent and fair. Taylor Walker is at least a year away, if not more, from AFL entry level.

Craig gave Taylor Walker a burst early in the season and saw some things he liked, but Taylor lacks a defensive edge as a forward. He can’t chase, he can’t lock the ball in. He is still too slim to burst the pack.

A little bit of patience, young man, and, too, some patience from the fans, and some selectivity from the commentary.  McDermott is so so wrong. Craig hasn’t fried Walker’s brain at all. The reverse is the case. Craig has rescued this kid from premature exposure. Craig has established the groundwork for a ten-year career, if Taylor wants it.

Taylor had a shocker on Saturday night. His Collingwood opponents got him out of position with a hip-to-hip bump at the key moments of his preparation; on one-on-one contests when the ball hit the ground, he was simply brushed aside; his defensive skills or, rather, his ability to keep the ball in the area were simply non-existent; his reading of the play was poor; his understanding of the team system around him was blank.

Taylor was a rabbit in the spotlight.

Taylor Walker was a sensation at Broken Hill as a seventeen YO, rising above the packs of old fat hard men and winning Adelaide’s first scholarship. At Norwood, last year, he continued to play above his weight, with swags of goals in the SANFL and impressed many with his strong air and ground work in the SANFL finals.

Here was a champion in the making. But not this year. At the Collingwood post-match press conference, Craig said:

You’ve got to feel sorry for this poor lad. The pressure on him was immense. Taylor will get there. It will take him some time but he will get there. He will look back on this awful night in a few years time and it won’t matter.

All true, Neil Craig.

But, in the meantime, suddenly Adelaide’s 2009 wheels have fallen off.

Adelaide began the season deficient in ruck and forward structure. They have never really solved the ruck problem – and few teams do. But, for a stretch of eight or nine weeks, it suddenly seemed that Adelaide’s forward structure had more scoring options than it has had for years and years and years.

Kurt Tippett, for example, has been the first batched turtle to make the lonely walk to the water’s edge and he has dived into the ocean as if he has been waiting for the world, rather than the world has been waiting for him.

He marks; he grabs; he pushes and shoves; he plucks the ball out of the ruck and snaps goals; he traps; he tackles; he has second and third efforts … he’s a formidable forward and an intelligent ruckman.

Patrick Dangerfield has exploded on the Adelaide scene, too. Craig has his system but Patrick also has his father’s words in his ears:

No one will ever give you the ball, son. If you want a kick you have to get in there and get it for yourself.

Patrick has a bit of the James Hird recklessness about him that will mean that he will always be subject to self-imposed injury or, rather, injuries incurred by failing to take the occasional half-step.

On the other hand, his injury layoffs will give him time to study the game and to work out how to play in a more effective manner. Like Hird, Dangerfield is an intelligent player and, like Hird, there are aspects of his personality and character that are uncoachable. Watch this kid.

And then there’s Jason Porplyzia – another intuitive self-programmed freak in the D. Jarman mode. Another uncoachable prodigious talent. You don’t coach players like these – you merely steer them in a general direction, reminding them occasionally that when they enter their zone of one, they should remember that they don’t have to do everything themselves.

You invite them to regard their teammates as aides, assistants and co-conspirators and not as people who may be crowding their personal space.

On Saturday night, Malthouse did exactly this with Alan Didak.

Didak is a fabulous zone-of-one player and kicked some remarkable goals in the Adelaide game. Freakish things, against the odds. And you knew that he went for them because he wanted to get them; that he wanted to prove to the entire football world that there was only only one Alan Didak.

He wanted to stamp his mark on that game, like a dog pissing on a tree.

I love Alan Didak. He has been an idiot in lots of ways but he is using football to cleanse his record, to make his history, to rechart his legacy.

His first goal in the Adelaide game was a beauty. He swung into my north-western pocket, 15 metres away from my seat, grabbed the ball, and plunked the goal at a vicious angle on the run against all of the odds, all of the angles.

I tapped my 75YO mate in the next row on his shoulder.

“That’s one of the best goals you and I have ever seen at AAMI Stadium,” I said.

“Correct,” the old man said.

More importantly, his goal assists created the team victory. Didak gave more goals away to his team-mates than he took for himself. There’s a new steely determinism in his play this year – as there should be after his earlier betrayal of the club’s trust. He’s responded to that crisis in the best possible way through individual brilliance and intelligent co-opting of his mates in his goal-scoring plays.

But I divert. Craig’s system closed the game down for a half.

Brett Burton, two games back after a long lay-off, went for another one of his lunchtime schoolboy hangers and hit the turf, bouncing on his arse.

We heard that landing in Row J, Seat 47 in the north-western pocket and we winced.

They took him off and made him sit on a bag of ice.

Too much damage, really.

Burton was exactly the X-factor Adelaide has always needed in its forwards – someone to split the pack, like a drive in lawn bowls against the jack, creating opportunities for the little guys like Porplyzia, or any of the non-forwards who always drift in for the kill – McLeod, Edwards, Vince, Reilly, Douglas, Thompson, Mackay, Symes, van Berlo, Goodwin … the whole Adelaide team come in for the kill.

Adelaide has a surplus of hunter and gatherers, all trained to the moment, all waiting for the ball to spill into their hands and their names to appear in big type in the paper tomorrow.

But, like most teams, Adelaide lacks big men with axes, capable of chopping down tall trees in the middle of the estate.

When Burton left the field with his corked buttock, that was not only the end of that game. It may also have been the tipping point for Adelaide’s season and, possibly, the end of Brett’s sensational and peculiar career.

With this injury, Brett may have to consider his retirement. I hope he’s thinking about extending his involvement in the AFL Players’ Association especially now that Brendon Gale has resigned as CEO.

Brett has been a strange scatty player, always choosing the difficult path, the most impossible way of gaining possession of the ball, seemingly bereft of the orthodox, choosing instead the sheer pleasure of the hang in the air than the body bump and the easy collect.

On the other hand, Brett is one of the better, saner and more intelligent footballers of the current crop when he is put in front of a microphone. He speaks, then, with clarity and intent and purpose and much sense. And grace.

He’s already involved with the AFLPA. I hope he moves on within that organisation and achieves his orthodoxy there, rather than taking the coaching path. There are too many coaches these days.

But back to Saturday night.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Adelaide left that game with their season in tatters. Bock and Dangerfield may be out for yet another week against Hawthorn. Heel and back injuries. They are the sort of injuries that can linger for a long time.

Burton out with a busted buttock.

That’s almost removing the centre half-back and centre half-forward from a side – the two key spots. Adelaide is in a lot of trouble.

Taylor Walker is not up to the. Scott Stevens can play forward, but he can’t if Bock is not in the team.

At the wrong time of the year, Adelaide has been found short of two competent talls. They’ve overcome the ruck problem by ignoring it and hoping that it will go away. By and large, it has.

By and large, Adelaide’s midfield cluster of smalls has done enough to get the team into winning positions without a dominant ruck. But, without Bock, Burton and Dangerfield, their forward structure has collapsed and their defensive strength is now spread thinly against many walls.

Suddenly, Adelaide has been caught with its pants down.


As for Port Adelaide, don’t start me talking…

If ever a team needed to win two in a row OR if ever a team needed to win a game on the road, that was Port Adelaide’s mission last Sunday at Subiaco.

And they knew it. Every player and every club official interviewed in the lead-up to this game had this one theme. “We must win this week; we must get consistency back into our season.”

Port Adelaide are genuine head jobs and have been for two years since Geelong smashed them in the 2007 grand final.

The club doesn’t need new training facilities or a home of its own away from AAMI Stadium. Or an injection of funds from sponsors to overcome its debt problem. Or a new stadium deal with SANFL

They need one-on-one psychiatric help for every player and every member of the coaching panel.

Once it was only a journalistic theory that Port would only win when no one gave them any hope and that they would lose when everyone thought they would win.

Port are a seriously impaired head job. Since Geelong smashed them in the 2007 grand final, they have been incapable of building on their wins. They cannot gain any momentum, any self-belief from their good efforts. They are trapped in the same cycle of blame and self-hatred that serial offenders display. They need to lose in order to construct a win. They need to be without belief in order to achieve anything.

Two weeks ago, I wrote this in my Adelaide Review column:

Port entered this game [against Adelaide] with a victory over the West Coast Eagles. As in 2008, they have struggled this year to win two in a row. Their run has been diabolical. It looks like the DNA code for a coach’s nightmare: wlwwlwlwllwllwlw.

That Port let Fremantle slip into form last weekend, early on in the first quarter, and then were incapable of stemming the flow, and then simply capitulated for the rest of the game was more than pathetic.

This was a disgusting betrayal of their duties as highly paid servants of their club and the bearers of the hopes and dreams of their market.

What is going on with this mob?

They have exquisite skills, potential winners on every line, a huge amount of pride they want to ram down our throat every time we look at them, and they can’t beat Fremantle at Subiaco in Round 19 when their very existence as a commercial entity is on the line?

There’s only one thing in Mark William’s favour that I can share with you.

Much like Round 13 last year, in a similarly pathetic season, where Mark said that Port would not make the finals and that announcement cost his club many hundred of thousands of dollars for the rest of the season with poor attendances, on Sunday night Mark said what everyone thinks:

It’s pathetic that we are still in the eight. We don’t deserve to be.

This was an honest and good response to a team that he is almost admitting that he can’t coach anymore.

The curious thing is that after a protracted battle for his coaching position, that, in itself, affected the players’ self-belief, the resolution of his coaching contract has failed to unite the team behind him.

Each player has a serious head problem.

The intent is there. The skills are there. The ability to win two games in a row is not there. The ability to win away from home is not there.

The ability to beat a basketcase team like Fremantle, in order to cement a spot in the eight and open up a finals series, was not there.

If you can’t beat Fremantle in Round 19, you can’t boil an egg.

There are serious questions for Mark Williams back at AAMI for his next game.

Why should any student of the game think that you are capable of turning this average group of players, with a fickle attitude to their own performance,  into a genuine team that is capable of winning a premiership in the next two years of your tenure?

Why did you continue to want to coach them when they have let you down so often and in such a pathetic way?

By the time I get to ask those questions, Port will have beaten Carlton at AAMI Stadium this week. Mark, and some of the players, will be on a confused high again.


  1. Steve Cooke says

    Simply brilliant.

  2. JK

    Very engaging, and courageous, piece.

    What I want to know though, is how you know what the coach (NC) is thinking?

    Although, when writing, I agree, you don’t need to know – all you have to do is make observations which are sound enough you can convince us that’s what he might be thinking.

    I buy your various theses.

    Genuienly entertaining, and more.


  3. Hi John,

    While the focus is on the North Melbourne and the two new entrants, the Gold Coast and West Sydney in terms of a viable future in the AFL, it seems to me that Port Adelaide are flying under the radar. As I understand it Port’s membership numbers have remained stagnant and that their overall supporter base has not increased. I also believe that they are seeking financial assistance from the AFL. It seems that Port just haven’t been able to grow whereas the Crows are a financial powerhouse with one of the largest memberships in the competition. Why is it so?

    Great to see NSW scholarship player Taylor Walker from Broken Hill going so well for the Crows.
    His father, Wayne “Wacky” Walker was a NSW stalwart in the 1980’s playing whenever possible in the State team. He drive from Broken Hill to Albury to play in the NSW team that beat the VFA in 1987 because it was quicker than waiting for the tri-weekly flight service out of Broken Hill to Sydney. I think he won four competition best and fairest medals playing for Centrals.

  4. John,
    While I acknowledge Patrick Dangerfield as a fine young player (indeed in the Timmy Watson “over-developed for his age” mould), please refrain from mentioning his name in the same sentence as James Hird’s until he has won at least one Brownlow and/or several games off his own boot. Bad enough that I just metioned him with T. Watson (doh!).

  5. John Kingsmill says

    To Steve Cook:

    Thank you. That’s the best thing anyone has ever said to me.


    To John Harms:

    I’m not convinced I put too many words into Neil Craig’s mouth in this piece.
    Quotes are real quotes.

    However, yes, I admit that I imagine some of Craig’s thought processes sometimes.
    I don’t think I have fantasies about him, though.

    I don’t dream about Neil Craig in the way I once dreamt about having conversations with Barrie Robran, John Bannon or Paul Keating.

    But there’s no reason footy writing can’t have an imaginative component like other forms of creative writing. In fact, maybe it should.

    Otherwise we are left with conference transcripts, club press releases and the horrible stats.

    A last note.
    At the press conferences, all the coaches and the clubmen always seem to know what the fans are thinking. They must be creative people, too.


    To Rocket:

    Port flying under the radar?
    They are sizzling under the microscope of the Adelaide market glare.
    But I know what you mean.

    The SANFL and the AFL have already bailed out some of Port’s debt. More millions will be needed in the next five years plus some business reconstruction.

    Why is it so? Very good question. Fremantle wins one game a month and their crowds seem to increase season by season. Strange people.

    Freo and Port are the last two teams in the comp and are, in many ways mirror images – swampies in the shadow of the Big Team in each city.
    Port has had more success onfield than Freo, but Freo maintains its membership commitment.

    That’s the same sort of marketing mystery that bothers North Melbourne. Its relative onfield success doesn’t necessarily transfer to its box office.

    Possibly, Port’s problem is that Mark Williams has been there for eleven years and the Port people are simply sick of him. They love him in the good years, but can’t stand him in the bad. And the last two years have been very very bad.

    Worse. Mark has just been appointed for two more years.
    The marketeers have nothing to work with for season 2010. 2011 will be another lameduck season with the coaching problem back in the limelight.

    I think there is a solution. Mark to take long service leave in 2010; Sheedy to be an unpaid voliunteer caretaker coach for one season to break the circuit of the 2007 GF loss; Mark Williams to come back refreshed in 2011 and coach for another decade.

    But their Board wouldn’t have the guts, let alone the nous, to even start thinking along these lines.

    On Taylor Walker… you are missing something.

    Taylor is at a crisis point right now. He has to hold his calm and work hard at SANFL for the rest of this year and maybe most of next. Hard ask for a young man with a fat contract. He has to retain his self-confidence and bulk up in a gym and stay on the rails to have an AFL career.
    I hope he makes it.


    To Budge:

    Fair comment.

    I should have said “Dangerfield has a bit of James Hird in him” and left it at that. Only a bit.

    On the other hand, could we have this conversation again, please, in 2019?

    If, by chance, Patrick happened to be playing for Essendon, both of us then might be claiming that Patrick is better than James ever was.

    And one last point. Patrick, like James, does seem to be injury-prone. There, I was trying to make the point that in a bizarre way, injuries extend the careers of some players with particular body types.

    But Budgie, you are correct. Comparisons are odious.

  6. I’m certainly not knocking Dangerfield, John. I think he will make it big time! Actually reminds me more of a young Ricciuto with his “bull in a china shop” style.

  7. John Kingsmill says

    No. I didn’t think you were knocking Dangerfield at all. You were praising Hird. Rightly so.

    On the Ricciuto comparison, I agree. And said so in a previous post here:

    “He’s like a baby Ricciuto with some Jarman intelligence and straightline orthodoxy in the mix. It will be fascinating to watch him develop over the next five years, to see whether his maturing body and mind will give him a Voss or Ricciuto type of strength, or whether he will stay lean and instead acquire a Hird type of reckless courage, or a Wanganeen type of cunning. Or a Judd who has all of these things.”

    After all this crystal ball gazing, Patrick better not let either of us down. But, on the other hand, pressure creates diamonds.

  8. JK

    Re Neil Craig’s thought processes:

    There are half a dozen places (not the quotes) where you are telling us what Neil Craig is thinking.

    I only know what I am thinking. You only know what you are thinking. I’m not sure why you attribute what you are thinking to Neil Craig. Surely you have more respect for your own thinking than that. It is, after all, what you are thinking. I need to make a leap of faith to accept that it is what Neil Craig is thinking.


  9. John Kingsmill says


    Craig’s position on the Taylor Walker saga has been publicly aired dozens of times over the last two years in Adelaide. I don’t think I am imagining his thoughts at all. I think I am reporting what he has said time and time again, without actually sourcing him.

    Misattribution is a reasonably serious crime.
    Do you want to be more specific about the half dozen places?


  10. JK

    That’s what I mean. It’s an issue of style.

    “Craig will not play him until he thinks the team is ready for the kid and the kid is ready for the team.”

    I read this as you speaking on behalf of Neil Craig, not as you relaying Craig’s thoughts. That is, that yuo are guessing at what Neil Craig is thinking.

    I actually don’t mind that. A lot of American writers do it and it can be very convincing.

    But for all I know Craig might be trying to develop him out on the park in match conditions.


  11. John Kingsmill says

    I think it’s also a matter of location, as well as style.

    This has been a vigorous public debate in Adelaide. I forget sometimes that I live here and that the rest of the world are not exposed to our media. Lucky them.

    McDermott and others have argued that Taylor should have been thrown in at the deep end. Even last season, people were arguing that Taylor should learn the AFL craft in match conditions. But, as I say, Craig thinks that etc, etc, etc.

    I don’t have a strong view. Time will tell. I think ruckmen have to learn how to ruck in the real world… but young forwards with exquisite skills? Not sure.

    Many of the great FFs became so after a couple of years in defence, understanding how backmen operate.

    On the American style, yes. It’s an evolution of gonzo journalism, but leaving the “I think” out of it. The writer becoming not only the subject, but also the object. Or reporting without manners in a shortcut style.

    I don;t dislike reading that sort of writing… but I must admit that once, when I heard that an MP was telling his colleagues that “John Kingsmill doesn’t believe in the holocaust” all I wanted to do was sue.

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