Team sport success: Where can I buy a magic carpet? (Illywhackers v. controllers)

The most puzzling thing in the entire encounter occurred at a certain stage very late in the conversation, when she discovered she had been talking to a man. She had the feeling of a dream where things and people transmogrify, characters dissolve from one to the other like tricks in a film, monsters in a bottle. She had the sense, the very distinct sense, of her companion’s female gender; she had been pleased to find it, had relaxed into it, had been even more delighted to find it coupled with an elegant wit and a sense of both joy and irony. The forces of life, she thought to herself, are flying high tonight.”  Peter Carey, Illywhacker.

Measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually to improvement. If you can’t measure something, you can’t understand it. If you can’t understand it, you can’t control it. If you can’t control it, you can’t improve it.” H. James Harrington

As we are presently abob on the Aussie Rules Sea of Conjecture, the media horizon is scattered with ominous pre-season predictions like malevolent icebergs. Everyone has been training the house down. Squads have never looked better. Predictions are made. And again. Fish and chip wrappings are created*.
Each February, optimism for the season ahead abounds. Yet only half of the teams will make the finals. A couple will have stinkers. A coach or several will be sacked. A couple of teams will rise unexpectedly. A coach or several will have their contracts extended.

Why is that?
It’s not as simple as following the money.
It’s not as simple as following the draft picks.
And hopefully it’s never going to be as simple as following the sports scientists.

What makes one squad of sportspeople a winning squad?
Many thousands of physical and mental therapists, millionaires and other self-interested hangers-on battle to unlock this one each and every day. H. James Harrington would be proud of them.
Never mind that, in a competitive environment, for every winner, someone has to fail.
This applies in business, too. What makes one squad of workers a winning squad?

What are the characteristics of a winning squad?
Can they be measured?
What if the defining difference between a winning and a losing squad is something that CANNOT be measured?
What then?

Anecdotal evidence says a happy squad is a productive squad.
The philosophy here underpins the D.S. Lehmann approach.
What conditions create a happy squad?
Are they jokes and trivia nights?
What is this beast called team culture?

I reckon the difference is in outlook. The personality of the individuals involved.
Put the right people with the right attitudes in place, and anything is possible.
The right attitude does not necessarily mean optimists, nor dreamers, nor knuckle-breaking hard nuts. But any or all of those could fit the bill.
Right simply means right for the conditions.
Right for the squad and the situation facing that squad at that time.
It’s nebulous.
It’s fraught.
It cannot be easily predicted.
But it probably aligns closely with people-skills. And emotional intelligence (to regrettably throw in a buzz word). Yet it amounts to far more than that, too.

Let’s just call it the GJ Bailey magic carpet effect.
This man came into the Test XI widely touted for his on and off-field leadership skills, despite a modest Shield record.
He represented Australia in the 2013-14 Test series (5-0), in the 50 over series (4-1), and in the T20 series (3-0). His state won the Shield last summer. His T20 franchise won their semi final last night.
The man rides a magic carpet to work. A case of the impact of a whole person being more than the sum of the impacts of his parts(?)
GJ Bailey was the right man for the squad in November 2013. Has the team culture been changed enough for his absence to be unnoticed in South Africa? We’ll see.
Riding a magic carpet, of course, doesn’t come naturally to most.
That’s why, when someone is found that lifts themselves and others to impossibly lofty heights; to places that leave us shaking our heads in wonder; that magic needs to be nurtured.

All AFL club recruiting department staff will have created spreadsheets and powerpoint files attempting to identify GJ Baileys for their own unique situations.
And unlike a cricket squad, once the AFL squad list is settled, it cannot be changed for the year.
The 2014 squads are set.
In 2014 who will give us the “feeling of a dream where things and people transmogrify, characters dissolve from one to the other like tricks in a film, monsters in a bottle”?
Who will do it to such an extent that they lift their whole side? Riding a wave to the finals? To the flag?
Later, as Monday’s experts, we’ll pick over it.
But on the playing days, let’s enjoy those moments when “the forces of life are flying high”.
Carn the illywhackers.
Carn 2014.

* For the young ‘uns, in the days before hygiene concerns fish and chips used to be wrapped in old newspapers.

About David Wilson

David Wilson is a hydrologist, climate reporter and writer of fiction & observational stories. He writes under the name “E.regnans” at The Footy Almanac and has stories in several books. One of his stories was judged as a finalist in the Tasmanian Writers’ Prize 2021. He shares the care of two daughters and a dog, Pip. Favourite tree: Eucalyptus regnans.


  1. mickey randall says

    Nice work, David. Always good to see some Peter Carey. Lots to consider in your piece. I love that every AFL season there are generally two teams who don’t make the eight, when most expect them to. And, of course, two who surprise and sneak in. Long may it continue. If it stops, we’re left with a local version of the EPL.

  2. The bean counters and high performance people love what they can measure. And it seems a lot of sports are heading in that direction.
    But for me and I suspect most fans it is the lack of predictability that we treasure, those wonderful intangibles that makes sport so addictive. Long live the George Bailey’s

  3. Hi Mickey, the unpredictability is great. I reckon success doesn’t follow the money, but that’s in an AFL/socialist model, where differentials are seen in money spent on coaching staff and facilities etc.
    In the English Premier League and it’s capitalism 101, the best players follow the money and success often follows them. A different case.
    Even so, what makes one squad of billionaires play more successfully than another squad of billionaires?

    Hi Squiz – yep control the controllables. What an industry.
    Despite all of these controllables being controlled, K.P.Pietersen was just dropped from the England cricket setup. Despite being their highest run scorer.
    This is a very hopeful sign that bean counters have lost control of selection.
    The uncontrollables matter.
    They probably matter more.
    A significant moment for England and for selection of teams, more generally.

  4. John Butler says

    Don’t know that I’d get my hopes up too much E Reg.

    Environments that privilege money will always end up run by the counters.

    You just replace one set with another.

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