Melbourne’s demons trouble me deeply

(This piece was first published on July 20, 2009)

“That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope whereof he knew
And I was unaware”.

The Darkling Thrush, Tom Hardy

By Rick Kane

It is that time of the year. The air is biting at your breath, hands in mittens, pushed deep down into pockets, you move hurriedly wherever it is you’re going. It’s damn cold and there is no time for pause.

On the other hand, when you find respite from winter’s cold embrace you turn your thoughts to deeper matters than the weather. This is a time of reflection, of staring deep into that dark, truthful mirror. And so it goes, in the world of football. Thoughts are fixed on this year’s woes and how to turn them into next year’s fortune.

Melbourne FC is in the sights of footy’s opinionistas, its plight being worked over with all the sensitivity of internet-accredited doctors using blunt instruments to hack a leg off one victim and stitch it onto another. Melbourne, your text book basket case of a team has, in the course of winning two in a row, suddenly become the cause célèbre for the “straight-talking” sports hacks.

In a nutshell, the argument being paraded concerns the potential draft choices Melbourne may have (including priority picks) depending on how many more games they win this year. If a team wins 4 games or fewer for the year they gain a first-round priority draft selection of the best up-and-coming footballers wanting to enter the AFL. At the end of Round 16 Melbourne had won only 3 games. To get maximum benefit from the draft they must lose most of their next seven games. Or in the parlance of the comp, they have to tank.

Michael Gleeson, writing in The Age on Tuesday, 14 July 2009, said it would be “negligent” of Melbourne to win more than one more game this season. Garry Lyon, (a Melbourne FC hero) when discussing the matter on Channel Nine’s Footy Classified, couldn’t decide whether he had more faith in the drive to win, which propels all sporting clubs, or the apparent pragmatics of the draft system.

Personally, I’m knocked over by the dominant view, as discussed in the media. That is, that Melbourne should tank and pick up the priority draft picks. I know this issue comes up annually. However, this time around it’s struck a deeper chord. I can’t seem to dismiss it as trite and petty gamesmanship or as another argument to fill newspaper columns.

At its most basic level it is a nonsense argument. Most arguments raised in favour of manipulating the AFL draft are based on mistaken syllogistical reasoning. Gleeson, Lyon and others seem to be operating purely at this level of debate. To suggest, as they are doing, that those draft picks will definitely be the best players to build a future around cannot be substantiated by history, logic or proof.

The draft is not a rigid delineation that determines the best players in sequence. Judd and Hodge may have been listed as top 3 draft choices in 2001. That same draft, Graham Pollack was listed at 4, Bartel (8), Del Santo (13), Steve Johnson (24), Sam Mitchell (36), Brian Lake (71) and so on.  Which is why, year after year, I have given scant regard to the rants dressed up as media debate about how to “use” the draft system.

This year I perceive from media articles a different, potentially deeper pattern. Maybe it is a sign of my age. I grew up with a belief that righteousness would continue forever to have favour in our reasoning. That it would drive our priority picks of behaviour, thought and relations. Apparently that’s not the case.

I was truly shocked watching Footy Classified. Caroline Wilson was the only panel member stating unequivocally that you should not throw games. She argued that winning, regardless of where you finish on the ladder, was the paramount reason for being for a footy club. And I was nodding, thinking she was applying logic 101. But she faced a tide of disagreements from Craig Hutchison, Grant Thomas and fence-sitting from Garry Lyon. Hutchison’s points may have been facile but they come from somewhere. From a way of seeing the world and making sense out of who we are and what we do. Most significantly, why we do the things we do. It was as if there was no history and no context other than the quest for an elusive Holy Grail … whatever that is, in his eyes and obviously others. Certainly, their arguments were based on business-minded principles.

Whatever I say from here on is based on the notion that I don’t understand business mentality. I’m frightened by it. I know it rules. I know it drives. I think it’s profoundly wrong. The mentality I’m taking about is profit for profit’s sake. It is where this business pragmatism for tanking to secure the “best” drafts comes from. Surely we’re not that greedy and stupid!

While watching, reading and listening to the media discussions on this topic this week I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Wisdom of Solomon. The parable goes that two women come to him, both claiming rights to a baby. He has to decide who the mother is, really. He gives the baby to the woman who would rather forsake her child than see it cut in half (which is the proposal he puts to both women). Is there someone so wise watching over the AFL? I’m not sure. Based on the reasoning operating in this issue, these wise men would have delivered the baby to the other woman, claiming to be its mother.

Looking deeper into the darkness of societal’s truthful mirror, I know this isn’t a mere reflection of footy’s simplistic ways. And that makes this issue and how it is being contested all the more terrifying. It is as if Orwell’s most dramatic imaginings have merged with digital’s new world order. In this ever evolving world, perhaps compassion and empathy have use-by dates or have become secondary considerations.

Slow down, Ricky, can you draw such a long bow from a few random dumb media utterances? Maybe not. I would be more reassured if, once the daft draft ideas had been raised in various media there had been a tsunami, or even a storm, or even a wind of an argument blowing them down. It didn’t happen.

I agree that you play to win. Every game. There is an inherent nature to how we behave that compels us to do our best, to achieve what we can. I think once we start to rationalise past that and utilise business best practice logic as our raison d’être then we are starting to think inside the machine. The machine we created. I think that direction is fatal.

There is something much more fundamental, much more “human” that stimulates and drives and invigorates us. It is where hope comes from. It is why the Bulldogs have the supporters they do, even though they haven’t won a flag in 50 years. It is what makes us a community as opposed to a group of individuals who happen to form into something bigger. I would hope the next best set of youngsters wanting to play AFL is most interested in joining a football community, with its values, principles, history and dreams.

About Rick Kane

Up in the mornin', out on the job Work like the devil for my pay But that lucky old sun has nothin' to do But roll around Heaven all day


  1. Andrew Starkie says

    Spot on, Rick. When individuals or teams cease trying to win, what they are doing ceases to be sport. Is this what our sport has come to? If it has, those who believe securing an unproven teenager to your club is more important than 150 years of history and millions of loyal supporters, can have it.

  2. Pamela Sherpa says

    Well said Rick and Andrew. Trying to lose just ain’t football.

  3. Neil Anderson says

    Well said and analysed. You reminded me why I’ve stuck with the Bulldogs and only ever joked about giving up on them.
    If ever it got to the stage where the Bulldogs had a policy of losing games to gain an early pick in the draft, that would be the trigger to end my 60-year loyalty to the Dogs. I’ve thought about the argument of whether to tank or not to tank for the greater good and future of the Club often, particularly recently, and I have been tempted to go for the ‘quick fix’. And then I remembered being excited about getting the No. 1 pick Adam Cooney in 2003 thinking he was all we needed. He took ages to show his worth and then recently he’s had the dicky knee. Early picks aren’t necessarily the answer. I refer you to the Richmond and Melbourne Football Clubs for further evidence.
    Anyway thanks for the reminder not to ever consider tanking again. I would imagine players like Matthew Boyd and Daniel Cross would quit the Club immediately if tanking was ever suggested, so I’ll put my faith in those guys.

  4. Andrew Starkie says

    Rick, more than ever your piece reads true. Prophetic and one of the best pieces posted on this site. I’m so worried for footy, have been for a long time. All empires that grow too quickly and too big, eventually fall. Or, at the very least, lose something along the way. What has happened to our game? Has the AFL become vicitm of its success? Hubris? On the other hand, why should our sport be different from other professional organisations? When there’s coin involved, corruption happens. The AFL put its head in the sand over this issue a few seasons ago and is now paying the price.

  5. Rick

    Great piece. I wonder too if we can get some of Demetriou’s comments from around that time – when he was adamant that tanking did not occur. Adamant.

  6. Great read Rick, and I agree wholeheartedly. I remember ringing Bartlett on his radio show in 09 when this was going on and said forget about the draft picks, what’s it doing to the culture and mindset. These guys are supposed to be winners; they are supposed to never give in and work their butts off until teh final siren.

    The message tanking sends to players is, “It’s ok to not do your best in certain situations.” Like in Round 19 in 2011.

    Sydney and Geelong have won 5 of the last 7 premierships and it’s never their draft picks that are credited with success, it’s their cultures.

  7. Earl O'Neill says

    Great piece, Rick. Prescient, given how it panned out. Players go out there to win and the tanking culture forced McLean to lay it all out.
    What did it amount to? Scully, that prized pick, couldn’t wait to leave.

  8. Andrew Fithall says

    Rick – I have said elsewhere I am not sure what rule Melbourne (or any other team accused of tanking) has actually broken. This is a new article by Michael Burke at VU which goes into some detail on this question.

  9. Barkly St End says

    Litza reminds us that Demetriou was adamant at the time that tanking did not occur, and that’s true, he was adamant, we can all recall it clearly.

    In one sense, isn’t Demetriou merely supporting what Kaney is writing here? The reluctance to believe that any team would do anything other than wanting to go out and win every game.

    But it’s complicated in the modern age.

    We have designed a system that allows clubs to rebuild and aim for a top 4 spot again after a few years near the bottom, and many would agree that that’s a pretty good principle for a sporting competion, that all clubs are able to rebuild and bounce back, rather than wallowing at the bottom for years on end.

    But whenever a club goes through a rebuilding phase, what does that mean exactly?

    At times, it will mean forsaking short term gains for longer term goals, i.e. being able to challenge for a premiership in the future.

    In fact, that’s why clubs exist.

    It’s not about today’s battle, it’s about the longer term war.

    That being the case, at what point does a club like Melbourne cross that line?

    In fact, can there be a line for a team that is on the bottom already?

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