I’m with Stupid: A Modern History of the Carlton Board

How can you tell when your moment has passed? At what point do you realise your old ways don’t cut it anymore? How do you summon the will to reinvent yourself?

These are the questions resolutely avoided by the Carlton Football Club since the dawn of the 21st century. Through a prolonged series of transgressions and miscalculations, it has transformed itself from a VFL powerhouse into a middling participant in the modern AFL. It is becoming football’s Norma Desmond, bemoaning a business grown small while its own delusions stay big. As the latest in a growing list of would-be messiahs grapples with the consequences of neglect, the big question for Carlton is whether it can muster the self-awareness to avoid the fate of Joe Gillis*.

For the current members of the Carlton board, who still seem content to bask in old glory, an illustration of how thoroughly they’ve lost the plot may be best done by comparison with the club we last defeated in a Grand Final. While the Blues have floundered, Geelong is the club that has largely achieved the goals Jack Elliott most desired in the late 90’s. This reversal of fortunes didn’t happen by accident.

Back in ’95, with a fourth Grand Final in seven years lost, with Blight gone and Ablett (Snr) ageing, most thought Geelong had missed its moment. Its location, an hour’s drive from Melbourne, had traditionally been considered a disadvantage. It was a country club trying to make it in a growing national league.

What it did have was leaders willing to accept the reality of the modern AFL. They realised the new boss wasn’t going to be the same as the old boss, and that this offered opportunities as well as restrictions. In an environment of salary caps and drafts, the Cats understood that good systems would count for more than fat wallets. Planning, recruiting and player development were the ways to future on-field success. And they were also smart enough to turn their location to advantage. By placing ground development proposals in a context of developing regional community resources, they have managed to get the bill for redevelopment of Kardinia Park largely paid for by the AFL and various public purses. It’s the Cats that now collect the reserved seat revenue that Jack Elliott once dreamt of for Princes Park.

Jack’s dreams, and how he turned them into nightmares, are a legacy Carlton still hasn’t exorcised. Jack was in his element in the days when you could do deals and buy players to build a team. Our flag in ’95 was the last gasp of that approach. But Jack was a one-trick pony who couldn’t accept his day was done. Worse still, the club that was capable of sacking George Harris in ’79, even though we were reigning premiers, now didn’t have the guts to tell Jack his time was up.

The rest is infamy. Carlton had a contract with the AFL for a guaranteed number of neutral games at Princess Park. Jack wanted to turn the ground into something like Docklands stadium, before Docklands even existed. Jack singularly failed to sell his preferred expansion of Princes Park to the Melbourne City Council. Nevertheless, he decided Carlton would pay for a compromised redevelopment on its own. Meanwhile, drunk on his own hubris (amongst other things), he never missed an opportunity to poke the AFL bear, even as he still needed to do business with it. The end result is that Carlton still pays off the debt on a Legends Stand that has been redundant for years. And then there was the minor matter of getting sprung rorting the salary cap….

The most remarkable aspect of the Elliott legacy is that it seems to never die. It’s a zombie beyond George Romero’s imagining. No matter how much carnage piles up in its wake, Carlton can’t seem to leave it behind. In 2007, a full five years after he resigned in disgrace, Jack was still talking to rich mates, doing deals, pulling strings, and boasting about it. Dick Pratt’s presidency consummated, then ended in further disgrace, the move to Stephen Kernahan hardly helped. The defining statement of the Kernahan presidency – “we’re Carlton, f**k the rest” – revealed him sadly as just another Jack Mini-Me.

The only prominent Carlton figure to publicly come clean about this in recent times is John Nicholls. On the occasion of his anointment as Carlton’s greatest ever player, Nicholls spoke humbly of the right way to win,  the work that goes into building a great club, and of the ongoing cost of an arrogant identity “thanks to a couple of presidents”. Hello Jack. Hello George. Big Nick’s baleful shark eyes may have lost some of their menace with age, but he still knows how to deliver a back-hander.

He also nailed it when he suggested we need to “keep the football culture somewhere on the board”. The paradox of modern Carlton is a board full of corporate fat-cats presiding over a debt that still clocks in around $4,000,000. So much for business contacts. To still be slagged-off for being rich bastards when you’ve had the beggar’s cup out for the last decade takes unique skill.

That lack of “football culture somewhere on the board” means we’ve clung to another little gem bequeathed by Jack: you know, that one about Carlton never rebuilding. On the subject of playing lists, and where they might stand in relation to the rest of the competition, Carlton has turned getting it wrong into an art form. We have 20-20 vision for false dawns. The result has been a succession of coaches resorting to survival mode, trying to appease unrealistic expectations whilst hanging onto their jobs.

Which seems to bring us logically to our current predicament, or what I’ll call the Malthouse Distraction. The circumstances of the Malthouse hiring make it harder to measure his performance, because the task facing him was completely misdiagnosed. No real review of club operations conducted. No idea of where we really stood. As a consequence, no consideration of a range of candidates to identify the most suitable option. All that analysis stuff is obviously best left to clubs who know what they’re doing. Carlton long ago replaced Mens sana in corpore sano with a Magic Happens sticker.

Let’s be clear on one thing. Mick Malthouse is a symptom of a problem, not the problem itself. We’d well and truly trashed the joint before he set foot in it. His main failing may be not understanding what he was walking into. That will be his problem, because he’s been around long enough to know better. But the danger for Carlton’s future is that the current board may be able to use Malthouse as yet another alibi.

Before we worry about who’s coaching us next year, we need to worry about who’s choosing that coach. On revealed form, who could possibly back the current board to make the right call?

*For those unaware, Joe Gillis ended up face down in the pool.

This is the sort of incisive analysis which has prompted The People’s Elbow to stand for the Crlton Presidency. Read more.

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. The People's Elbow says

    20-20 vision for false dawns… nice.

  2. “middling participant” – that’s being kind

  3. John Butler says

    Now, now Cookie. Don’t let my comments about the Cats go to your head.

    Despite the above, we still have more members than Geelong.

    For now.

  4. Well considered. Thoughtful. Rational.
    Why do you barrack for Carlton?
    The “coach as messiah” ideology is still alive across sport and society. We all want daddy to make it better for us.
    While sacking Malthouse would have no short term benefit (other than preserving Jock McHale’s iconic status) I have always thought him a General Sherman “burn the fields behind you” coach. At the Eagles he inherited a state team and gave them the necessary smarts and ruthlessness. There was nothing left when he moved on.
    The Hawthorn model continued on by Simpson and Beveridge is about teaching skills and a playing style with a 3-5 year goal in mind. I suspect Alan Richardson is doing the same at St Kilda.

  5. John Butler says

    Rational thought and football clubs have only a passing relationship PB.

    cf. the long, proud tradition of business people on footy boards leading to disaster.

  6. The Philby says

    Great piece, John. The ghosts of the Elliott era still haunt us… the more I think about it, the Sticks presidency was the worst thing that could have happened to the Blues this century. That document he helped release stating we’d win the premiership in next three years. Bitter, ironic laugh.

    The attitude of living in a once-glorious past . It’s THE reason why Malthouse go through the door. The quick fix with the wallet. The hubris. No strategic thinking, no development. Argh.

  7. John Butler says

    Cheers Philby

    When you don’t know what to do,, pick a known quantity and hope no one notices you don’t know what to do.

    See Malthouse
    See Trigg

  8. Barb Smith says

    A sorry history, well recorded.

  9. Outstanding John!

    As an Essendon supporter, I am a huge fan of what LoGuidice, Kernaghan, Mathieson and Elliot are doing at Royal Park.

  10. Malcolm Ashwood says

    A very good honest thoughtful article far from convinced that , Trigg is the answer for the blues either . Overall as a non Carlton person to the outsider , arrogance is the virtue which has hurt , Carlton for years

  11. John Butler says

    So what are we calling Saturday Steve?

    The Schadenfreude Cup? Or Jibbers vs Jabbers?

    Thanks Barb,.

  12. John Butler says

    Malcolm, I suspect Mr Trigg may be getting some “quality feedback’ from our members, at least to judge by the furious rate of apologies issuing from his mailbox.

    Welcome to Melbourne Steven. :)

  13. John: The Hawker-Manton Cup has a nice ring to it for this Saturday, no?

    The Murphy-Allan-Camporeale Shield?

    I reserve a deep respect for the obvious modern-day Essendon/Carlton connection (I think the Clubs tried a Madden Medal for BOG in Ess/Carlton games or am I confusing a one-off challenge?)

  14. I really enjoyed this article. Hold on, let me rephrase – it was really good but it made me sad. The comparison with Geelong…oh boy, what a bummer!

  15. We’ve all got the blues…
    North defeated Hawthorn in a semi-final in 2007.
    Look at what the Hawks have done since then, compared to North.
    All this whinging doesn’t disguise one simple fact.
    Recruiting is the key.
    Denis Pagan walked into a club who had nothing and suffered the constraints of AFL sanctions. Ratten inherited an average list. Malthouse too.
    The failure mightn’t be in the board room, or Malthouse or with past presidents.
    It could be the fault of the recruiters…

  16. “The paradox of modern Carlton is a board full of corporate fat-cats presiding over a debt that still clocks in around $4,000,000.”

    JB, really interesting article from a Carlton person about his own.

    I would say the paradox you refer to is no paradox. Corporate life is, for some, about spending other people’s money in your own interests.

  17. Extremely well balanced and thoughtful piece, JB.
    It’s a really interesting question: Where to now for Carlton?
    I am glad you mentioned S Kernahan’s infamous comment (and I’m not talking about “Stand by your man”) – what an ill-considered, foolish thing to say. Merely perpetuating the myth…

  18. John Butler says

    Thanks Malby. How good would it be if we were still playing 4-5 games at Princes Park? The Cats made it happen. We blew it.

    Ironmike, you’re right about the importance of recruiting, but good recruiting doesn’t happen by accident. A club needs to pick the right people, resource them, and have a clear idea of the players they’re looking for. There’s no guarantee on any single pick, but the successful clubs play the percentages better.
    The Pagan experience at Carlton is worth an entire piece on its own – it exemplifies so much of what is discussed above.

    JTH, I was thinking paradox in terms of how we’re still perceived externally. You’re spot on with that last sentence. The Wall Street GFC was all about that attitude to other people’s money. Football clubs aren’t always thoughtful enough about they types of business people they ask onto their boards .

    Smokey, the shame of the Kernahan presidency is that I don’t think Sticks could perceive a Carlton without Jack, and his way of doing business. But there’s so much more to Carlton’s history than Jack. This is what I think Big Nick was getting at.

  19. “Which seems to bring us logically to our current predicament, or what I’ll call the Malthouse Distraction. The circumstances of the Malthouse hiring make it harder to measure his performance, because the task facing him was completely misdiagnosed. No real review of club operations conducted. No idea of where we really stood. As a consequence, no consideration of a range of candidates to identify the most suitable option.”

    Great analyses and why those Carlton people calling for Mick’s head need to pull in their own. They brought in a surgeon when they needed a mechanic, but no one realised till the surgeon was elbows deep in oil and asking ‘should this bit be rattling like this?’ Now they’re all pointing at the surgeon and saying, ‘its his fault’.

    To be fair I think quite a few people are looking at the list at Geelong and asking some serious questions.

  20. Andrew Starkie says

    Whatever. Can’t be bothered reading it.

    Shouldn’t have built the grandstand. Beginning of end.

  21. Dave Nadel says

    It is a very good analysis JB. The fact that I enjoyed it so much probably does not reflect well on me. But then I am a very long term Magpie supporter and I haven’t forgotten the 70s and 80s.

  22. John Butler says

    Dave, a Collingwood man wouldn’t be human if he didn’t enjoy much of this.

    I haven’t forgotten the 70’s & 80’s either. Carlton supporters my age have had their fun. But I have vague hopes of enlisting some of the grand-kids to the cause. Unless we turn things around I don’t like my chances.

  23. Well written JB. There is no quick fix for the Carlton malaise. However to put it crudely, you need a veritable enema put through the club.

    You can start by cleaning out any board member or coaching staff member associated with the halcyon period, which went from from 1967 until the end of the 2001 season. The desire, the fixation, to fantasise about that period needs to be moved on from, because until that happens your club remains trapped.

    The playing list is poor. Apart from Gibbs, Murphy and Kreuzer, if he’s ever fit, there is not the nuclei of players to make you a regular finalist in the next five years, Premiers, don’t even consider it. When you recruit players like Jones and Tutt, one can hear Dr Phils’ prophetic words: “What were you thinking ?” Add to under acheivers/ over rated plodders like Jamison, Walker, Bell, Curnow, your on field future looks gloomy.

    Is your longest run without a flag the 1947-1968 stretch ? If so expect that record to be consigned to the dust bin of history, because a flag prior to 2020 is at best a fantasy.


  24. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Great work JB.
    Like Dave, part of me enjoys the Blues’ misery. Another part wants to see Collingwood and Carlton up there as contenders. The 18 team comp has killed that, probably for our lifetime, which makes it hard to be patient as rebuilds now take ‘4-6’ years. I no longer have the energy, passion and inclination to bother. Gold Coast and GWS have to succeed you see, but at what cost?

  25. John Butler says

    I986 isn’t Phil? Almost 30 years since Blues v Pies in a final. Who would have thought?

    Can’t blame it all on the new teams.

  26. It still saddens me that Princess Park is no longer used for football. It was the perfect stadium for clubs like my own (North Melbourne) to play interstate teams. Despite losing the game, the atmosphere at North Melbourne vs Sydney at Princess Park in ’96 still remains strong in my memory (as does the memory of North fan next to me complaining about Pagan getting rid of Alistair Clarkson. I wonder what ever happened to little Clarkson since that day).

    But with a Carlton led by John Elliott as a landlord, and the experiences of Footscray and Fitzroy to draw on, the smaller Victorian clubs were never going to back the idea, and we threw in our lot with Docklands. And hasn’t that worked out well.

    Growing up with footy in the 80s, people forget just how big a club Carlton were back then. But much like how Essendon* have struggled since their one loss 2000 Premiership, I think the hubris from Carlton’s outstanding two loss 1995 season was the beginning of the end.

  27. Great article and the fact that there is $4m debt despite such a rich Board shows it needs an overhaul.

    If the function of the Board is fund raising, it has failed, and needs new people who can actually raise cash or make the business of CFC cash-flow positive. I am sure the current board all contribute and work hard but the objective is not being achieved.

    If the function of the Board is corporate governance CFC have not had a real scandal since 2001 (other than suspicions of tanking when we were really crap which cost us Trent Cotchin). So a tick there, but it has been due to total risk aversion rather than maximising opportunities. CFC will not improve if we are so risk averse we do nothing (i.e. recording alleged peptide pushers but deleting our video to avoid being part of a scandal).

    If the function of the Board is to build membership then Pratts $$$ helped there, but we need to stand for something more than $$$ that people can aspire to and want to be part of. Again a failure.

    If the function of the Board is infield performance then we really need new blood.

  28. John Butler says

    Thanks for the comment Daniel.

    The 95 flag certainly went to Jack’s head. And the miracle that was the 99 Prelim provided further camouflage. We’re all wise in hindsight.

    The sad part was that Jack was probably ahead of his time by introducing reserved seating. But he did nothing but antagonize everyone outside Carlton. I still remember opposition fans whinging about the levy for sitting in the Legends Stand. Now we pay over the odds without blinking. But because the money was seen to be lining Jack’s & Carlton’s pockets we were always struggling to get others on board.

    Davo, the board should be staying away from football decisions. But they need to be capable of listening to the right advice and hiring the right people. Not much evidence of that lately. Nor of accountability when things have obviously gone wrong.


  29. Glenn Butcher says

    *Princes Park*
    Great article.

  30. John Butler says

    And you win the door prize Glenn! Actually, you and Pete Baulderstone.

    An attempted joke. But if no one gets it you can’t really call it a joke.

    I better leave the humour to The Elbow.

  31. Peter Fuller says

    Spot-on analysis, and the number and quality of comments your post has drawn indicates that our Blues continue to matter in the eyes of friends and enemies.
    I fear that for many of us it’s a case of we want answers, but “you can’t handle the truth”.
    A couple of pedant’s points:
    Carlton’s longest premiership drought was 1915-38, but in that period and in the next worst 1947-68 suggested by Glen, the Blues were beaten Grand Finalists several times, and never wooden spooners; post 1995 (or 1999, but especially 2001) has certainly been the most ignominious in Navy Blue history.
    Most recent Carlton-Collingwood encounter in a final was from memory in 1988, (Qualifying Final ?)

  32. John Butler says

    When in doubt, consult the Bluseum.

    You’re right Peter – last final against the Pies was an ’88 Qualifying Final. A telling statistic on how things have changed when considered in light of the 70’s/80’s.

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