Round 7 Carlton v Collingwood: The Malthouse Conundrum

Watching footy in the Northern Rivers region of NSW can be a touch lonely. Occasionally someone will walk into the common area to find me staring at a game they have little comprehension of. The obvious question is who I am barracking for. Although a simple question, I find it difficult to answer. The sameness of modern-day AFL clubs makes it difficult to have strong feelings about them. For the most part, the commercialisation of football has created clubs that present an exceedingly similar public face. I usually choose a team so I can answer quickly but the reality is more complex.

I watched Carlton play Collingwood on Friday night and couldn’t choose a team to support. I did what I often do and watched the game purely for the enjoyment of watching football. Players who I like tended to elicit a positive emotion in that I wanted them to perform well and win. Scott Pendlebury and Dale Thomas fit in this category. The opposite is also true and whenever the likes of Jeff Garlett, Kade Simpson and Marley Williams appeared on screen, I found myself hoping their team would lose. But there is a third type of player, the ones who elicit mixed emotions. Players like Dane Swan, Travis Cloke and Heath Scotland. The most interesting character creating mixed feelings for me on Friday night was Carlton’s coach, Mick Malthouse.

For most of my life I have admired Malthouse. His West Coast Eagles in the early 1990s were formidable to say the least. When he quit the Eagles to move back east, I was dismayed by the clamouring of clubs jockeying to employ him as a coaching messiah. That he chose the club with the biggest budget and the highest profile meant that my opinion of the man fell.

Malthouse was able to turn around the fortunes of the then struggling Magpies. He took the team to successive Grand Finals in 2002 and 2003 but my admiration of the Brisbane Lions meant I actively hoped for Collingwood losses. With the biggest budget of clubs in Victoria, the highest-profile president and a famous coach, it was easy to dislike the Pies. I enjoyed their decline following their failed premiership attempt.

But not long later, the Malthouse-led Magpies were again challenging for the premiership. My distaste for them had not receded until a colleague asked which AFL coach would I like to be my football coach. For me, it was an easy choice – Paul Roos. When I asked Dave, he agreed but said that he would also like to be coached by Malthouse. I have a great deal of respect for Dave, so I swallowed a scoff and allowed him to explain.

Put simply, the Collingwood teams of 2002 and 2003 lacked talent. Glenn Freeborn, Tristen Walker and Matthew Lokan are not likely to appear in anyone’s team of the decade and few will recall them. In the same positions, the Brisbane Lions had Martin Pike, Luke Power and Alistair Lynch. The question that Dave so neatly put to me was how did Malthouse get these guys to the Grand Final?

Fast-forward to 2010-2011 and Nick Maxwell is captain of the Magpies. A man widely ridiculed as being one of the worst players to attain the position of captain of an AFL club. Travis Cloke is an awful kick but nonetheless is one of the most formidable forwards to have played in the last 20 years. Dane Swan has a horrible running style but transformed himself into a Brownlow medallist. Collingwood won the premiership in 2010 and were overcome by one of the most talented modern-day teams in Geelong the next season. Again from Dave, what role did Malthouse have in moulding these young men and turning them into premiers?

This salient point transformed my thinking of Malthouse and, to an extent, Collingwood. For years I had been deriding the likes of Maxwell and Leon Davis but I began to see how Malthouse was able to get the best from obviously flawed footballers. I began to see Malthouse as a mentor and educator who saw the strengths in his players and used them for that purpose. This gave his men the confidence they needed to defeat teams with more talent.

As he was approaching 60, the Collingwood president decided to move Malthouse on and replace him with favourite son Nathan Buckley. Despite what the Pies say, this must have been poorly handled as Malthouse remains upset at being forced to retire after taking his team to the 2011 Grand Final. My admiration of Malthouse meant that this gave me another reason to dislike the Collingwood Football Club.

To the Magpies credit, they are moving on under Buckley. Individuals have an impact at clubs, but after a departure clubs continue. Malthouse, meanwhile, remained upset by what he saw as Collingwood’s slight. Unsaid was that Collingwood felt Malthouse was becoming anachronistic and Buckley was the future. My contention is that this insult is what drove Malthouse to accept another coaching job, this time at Collingwood’s greatest rival, Carlton.

At Footscray, West Coast and Collingwood, Malthouse improved the fortunes of his teams. At Carlton, current events would suggest otherwise. Although the Blues won a final in 2013, they did not ‘make’ the finals. Malthouse had taken a mediocre team and kept them mediocre. In 2014, Malthouse’s Blues are battling. They sit in 16th position and have only won 2 games from 7 chances. The most troubling part is that Malthouse appears to shoulder no blame, retaining complete faith in his tried-and-tested methods. This implicitly places responsibility for the losses elsewhere – the players.

Mick Malthouse regularly appeared on screen on Friday night. Each time I had mixed emotions about the man. But I couldn’t help but hope his team lost. No longer does he seem able to get the best from his players. No longer does he seem motivated by improving the young men under his charge. Instead, his drive seems to come from a desire to prove Collingwood wrong for forcing him out. In a catch-22, his desire to prove his coaching philosophy is still pertinent could prove his undoing and thus make him antiquated. I wonder if Dave still wants to be coached by Malthouse.


  1. Excellent piece. Really enjoyed it.

  2. Cheers JPM. Glad to hear it.

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