Keeping Up Appearances

Scene 1:  A group of Club Recruiters are meeting with an AFL Manager to discuss emerging issues and trends in the game.

Recruiter 1: It’s always been as much an art as a science this recruiting business.  You look at what’s available in the local comps.  Look at your clubs place on the ladder.  No point in looking at the top kids as we won’t get a top 12 pick this year – what with the new team preferences, and our good finish last year. 

Recruiter 2: Yeah beep tests and Draft camp scores only tell you what the kids can do on the outside, not what’s on the inside.  We drafted a kid because of how he went in the Colts finals over here.  Wasn’t in the top 50 for speed, but when all the starry kids were fumbling and trying to take screamers, he was in his element.  Clean hands; picked the right options; set up his team mates – not an elite athlete but a footballer with a good head on his shoulders.

Recruiter 3: We had one like that.  I thought he was going to be a beauty.  Got him into our system and the sports science blokes got into his head about skinfolds and leg speed and eating salad.  Kid can’t look at a lamb chop now without chundering.

Recruiter 4: Yeah they reckon yearling racehorses are a raffle.  Try it with 17 year old boys.  All hormones and macho front.  But a lot of them are marshmallows inside.  Had one lad who looked like he could be something.  But he was looking for a Dad.  In all the wrong places.  He followed XXXX around like a puppy dog, on the training track and afterwards.  Kid thought he could play the midfield like him.  We thought he might be able to in a few years time.  Trouble is XXXX has always been a bit of a mug for the ponies and the grog.  We’ve bailed him out a few times and now we have all his finances handled by his wife with our accountant.  Saved his bacon.  You do that for best and fairest winners.  Trouble was that this kid followed his lead, and we didn’t know until it was too late.  XXXX would go home when he’d lost a grand, but this kid would stay untilmidnight.  We didn’t know until it was too late, and he wasn’t that good that we would put all the time and effort into trying to turn him around.

Recruiter 1:  Shit happens.  Bloody waste isn’t it.

Recruiter 4:  Yeah you interview the parents and the local club people but they all put on their best face to sell you the kid.  You only find the real story later on.  The Dad was a pillar of the local footy club.  Mail medalist and all that stuff.  Coached 3 premierships.  All the locals thought he was great.  But a real tyrant with his own kids.  Thought it would toughen them up.  Never said a good word to the lad in private.  Only humiliated him about the couple of mistakes he made.  Mum was a doormat.  But he was good as gold with other people.  Apparently his own dad was a boozer, so he reckoned everything had to be about being tough and disciplined.

Recruiter 2:  Yeah.  You are recruiting 3 people.  An athlete; a footballer; and a person.  You can be pretty sure about the athlete, though there will always be the injury surprises.  The footballer – you can see what you are getting, and you have some idea of what that might become with a few years of intensive development.  But the person – who knows?  Some kids from struggletown who struggle to read have an inner steel.  Others have all the pieces, but crumble when the pressure comes on.  My mate says “everyone’s pretty normal, until you get to know them better.”

Recruiter 3: You’re right.  We’re a footy club.  A business.  Everyone wants finals action every year as a bare minimum.  These kids are our raw materials.  Our premierships or wooden spoons in 5 years time.  And you only get a few each year, with the list management rules these days.  We do our best to look after them, and give them some personal skills and mentoring.  But there is only so much you can do for anyone – young or old.  We all have our own learning to do.  And some kids you just can’t persist with because you only have so much time.  The special ones you persist with, but the average kid you just have to cut adrift if he keeps crumbling on the field, or stuffing up off it.  It’s a narrow window, and it’s sad for the kids, you just have to keep turning them over and hope you get lucky with the next draft.

Recruiter 4:  You’re right mate – we do the same.  That’s where indigenous kids can be a bit of a juggling act.  The pluses are the skills and creativity they bring to the game.  They have been working on them since they could crawl.  And most of them are really hard trainers because they want to be on the biggest stage.  It’s a generalization, but as a rule, they have even further to travel in coming to terms with the disciplined, ruthless culture of professional sport.  Footy has been a thing of joy for them growing up.  They get bored with the repetitions of training.  They don’t want to crawl over their team mates to get a place in the side.  They want to go out with their mates.  And footy takes them a long way from their family.  A lot of them come from the bush so it can be a physical distance, but often its more the emotional distance from that big, brawling, relaxed, loving family they have spent all their life with.  It’s a huge tear for them.

Recruiter 2:  Look you’re right.  We look to draft a couple of kids each year, who we think might be something special, but we know will take a lot more adjusting than average.  They can come from anywhere.  Might be aboriginal, African, Islander or white kids who’ve come from a really dysfunctional family.  We make allowances for the extra time and effort they will require in development, mentoring and supervision.  It’s a high risk business, so you can only afford to use a couple of draft picks that way each year, but YYYY made it worth it when he won us those flags and the Norm Smith.

Recruiter 3: We do the same.  Its tough trying to work out which kids might be worth the effort, with a lot a time and engagement.  We look for someone in their background, no matter how dysfunctional it might be, who gave them that golden seed of self belief when they were growing up.  Someone who told them they were good, and had special talents, and that they could make it – when everything else was shit in their lives.  Often that person and that idea has got buried over their growing up years, and the only place these kids really feel safe and alive is when they are on the footy field.  But we know that under the pressure ofAFLfooty where everyone is talented and everyone is bigger and stronger than you for a few years – all those old insecurities are going to resurface.  Footy isn’t going to be a refuge, its going to be where your inadequacies are exposed for the first few years.  It leads lots of those kids back into their worst personal fears and habits.  So we need to have that person in their background that they can trust, and that we can talk to, and encourage them to confide in when things get tough.  Often the people closest to them are too enmeshed, and have too much of their own self esteem or problems invested in the boy, to give them really a really strong, wise perspective.  For a white kid that confidant might be a school teacher; or a coach or official from their local club who they turned to when things were tough.  They need to have the boy’s trust, respect and a little bit of emotional distance to give them perspective.  For a black kid, it might be an auntie or a white parent who just has that bit more distance and awareness of how all the life trouble around him is affecting the boy.

All Nod.

Recruiter 3:  Every one knows the kids you recruit that win flags or best and fairests.  The ones that give me the greatest kick are the ones that didn’t make it on the field, but they learned something from being in the system.  I met a kid the other day inPerththat I hadn’t seen for years.  Did his knee and never quite cut in when he lost his speed edge and confidence after the rehab.  Got in with some nasty types for a while, and we thought he had lost it.  But Fortescue took him on 5 years ago, and now he is the Occ Health and Safety Manager for one of their biggest operations in the Pilbara.  Had his wife and 2 lovely kids in tow.  Told me the disciplines and structures ofAFLtraining all came back to him when he got involved with some of Fortescue’s programs.  Made him a star in their eyes.  He said to me “mate you’ve only got 50 blokes to worry about, I’ve got 300 on my books.”  We both laughed.  I told him he could have my job.  “Too hard looking after 18 year old ratbags like me,” he said.  Reckon he’s my biggest success.

Scene 2: AFL Headquarters Meeting Room.  Sign above the coffee machine says “No short or long blacks.  No flat whites.  Cappuccino only.”

Boss:  “The media are all over me about this young indigenous kid with the legal problems, did you get anything out of your meeting with the recruiters last week that could put a different angle on the issue.”

Manager recounts the discussion as best he remembers it.

Media Adviser turns to Boss: “Lets think about that.  Might be something there that can help our profile.  I just got the NRL TV ratings for their first 2 rounds, and Channel 7 are worried that GWS will be a basket case.”





  1. Phil Dimitriadis says

    PB, this would be great satire if it weren’t so true! I’m glad these issues are coming to the fore in order to be discussed rather than swept under the carpet.

    Teachers find a way to manage a classroom with 25 teenagers for 6 hours a day. How hard can it be for footy clubs and the AFL with all that cash? I’m thinking of applying for a job at Fortescue after reading this. Great stuff.

  2. Skip of Skipton says

    Peter, I see that BOTH reports on Izzy Folau from the game against Richmond in Canberra have been dropped, leaving him free to play in the season opener against the Swans. How surprising.

  3. pamela sherpa says

    Phil , I am thinking about giving up teaching and becoming a carpet sweeper as there seems to be a lot of opportunity in that industry at the moment.
    Skip- I’m glad Izzy is free to play. I think it’s only natural he might get himself reported a few times as the physicality of rugby is deeply ingrained in him . The money is one thing but the pride of succeeding as an athlete will be his prime motivating force.

  4. John Butler says

    PB, once I heard who was appearing on Footy Classified last night, I had a feeling this piece would take on a whole new resonance.

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