The 5 Cs of Premiership Success

Was it just me, or did we all laugh when the Tigers announced a new five-year plan at the beginning of the year? All except Tigers fans of course. Their collective groan measured 4.1 on the richter scale.

Five years in itself is not too long to wait for premiership success, but when it’s the ump-teenth five-year plan in a row, and where none of the previous plans have borne any fruit, then it becomes farcical, or tiresome depending on which side of the fence you sit.

The problem with 5-year plans is that every club now has one, and when you divide the number of teams (currently 16) by five, it means that three teams on average will win the one Flag that is available each year. The introduction of two more teams in 2011 and 2012 is going to make it even more crowded at the top.

Obviously, three into one doesn’t go. So what next?

Strategic planning and resource management are now key elements of AFL clubs, and in that respect they function much like well managed corporations.

But as with the best laid plans of any corporation, the outcomes are not always as expected and can be either better or worse.

If, as an example, we looked at the expectations of the AFL itself when it introduced drafting, salary caps, priority picks and smaller lists, the expected outcome was that the premiership would be shared by a larger number of clubs. The likes of the Bulldogs, the Saints, and the Swans would suddenly have a greater probability of success. In fact, all things being equal, the ultimate result would be that each club would win a premiership one in every x years where x is the number of teams in the League.

In reality, since the first draft in 1986 only 11 clubs have won a premiership.

While 11 of 16 seems a good spread, 3 of the 11 were not even in existence at that time, and the newly formed Brisbane Bears had not yet played a game. Of the 12 foundation clubs, only 7 have won premierships. The greatest measure of failed AFL expectations however, is that of the teams that were stragglers before 1986, only one (if you discount Fitzroy’s merger with Brisbane in 1996) has since tasted premiership success when in 2005, Paul Roos and Leo Barry became part of Swans folklore.

And given the raft of concessions, not to mention the financial assistance afforded to the Swans, the AFL can hardly point to Sydney as evidence their ‘equalisation program’ was a success.

Quite obviously, the draft system, the salary cap, and smaller lists have not helped the less successful clubs as hoped.

The clubs themselves have known this for quite some time and have spent millions of dollars and countless hours trying to uncover the secret. They have increased their number of coaches, improved their training facilities, done more research on potential recruits, become more specific on the qualities those recruits must possess, devised elaborate game plans, brought in formulaic player-driven leadership structures, and even tanked to gain advantages at the draft.

Sitting atop all those things though, and determining whether or not those disparate elements come together to create a cohesive success-oriented environment is the dreaded ‘C’ word.


Though culture is intangible, it is also palpable and all clubs acknowledge its importance. People recognize a successful culture, and its opposite. It can make or break players and so its impact on performance cannot be underestimated.

Consider the 7 clubs that existed prior to 1986 and have won premierships since.

Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon, and Hawthorn were and are cultures that not only demand success, but expect it. The first three clubs are the most successful in terms of premierships; the fourth is the most successful club of the last 45 years.

North Melbourne developed a winning culture in the 1970s and by the 1990s was once again a power.

Of the other 2 clubs, Geelong was mired in mediocrity until its imminent extinction in 1999 forced it to finally commit to cultural change whilst Sydney (nee South Melbourne) was facing a bleak future until Paul Roos took the helm in 2002.

To confirm the importance of culture, Sydney won the premiership in 2005 without an exceptional list of players. It was an extraordinary feat, and one almost universally attributed to…you guessed it…their culture. Conversely, Fremantle, which followed a similar recruitment strategy to Sydney, has been a perennial disappointment. Outsiders blame the culture.

Culture plays a major role in winning premierships.

Of course, culture is not the only factor.  In fact, I’ve identified another 4 “Cs” that are, or have been, critical to premiership success.


If you were to look at the list of  Premiers since 1986, it seems very clear to me that concessions have played a major role. Eddie Maguire certainly referred to this “C” word repeatedly when his side lost two Grand Finals in row to the Brisbane Lions.

Draft concessions. Salary cap concessions. Say no more except West Coast, Adelaide, Brisbane, Port Adelaide and Sydney.


I used this word poorly, syntactically speaking, but it adequately describes a premise that is now recognized by most clubs.

It is important to bring to a club a large number of draftees or trades in a short space of time. Bringing in a large group together allows that group to bond and grow together; to build camaraderie and trust in each other.

Geelong enlisted 8 new players in 1999 and another 8 in 2001, 9 of whom form the core of the current team. Similarly, the core of North Melbourne’s 90s team came up through the Under-19s together, the coach included. Then there were the Baby Bombers who were the dominant side at the turn of the century, the Lions whose three-peat was driven by players picked up during heavy recruiting in the mid-1990s, and the new interstate teams in West Coast, Adelaide and Port Adelaide who started with predominantly new lists.

Of course, new players who were important if not critical to premiership success were added to these teams’ lists outside of the major intakes, but the players who came to their clubs together have in most cases been the foundation stones.

Sydney is the exception to the rule.


Technically speaking, I mean “time” but “clock” retains the “C” theme and this aspect is no less important than the previous “Cs”, although the previous “Cs” must already be in place.

The Baby Bombers ‘stole’ a premiership in 1993, but it was a further 6 years before they blossomed and dominated the competition. The Kangaroos endured years of finals heartbreak before they were mature enough to break through in the mid- to late-90s. Voss and co were recruited in the mid-90s, yet they did not peak until 2001. Geelong began their ascent in 1999 and reached the pinnacle in 2007.

Quite clearly, when a club first commits to redefining their culture or rebuilding their list, it must be given time to do so by those who support it. False dawns and unreal expectations put undue pressure on clubs to deliver. A club needs time to execute its plan and realize its goals.


“Clover” is the Irish symbol for luck.  A club can have the “best laid plans” but timing and luck sometimes intervene.

The two drafts in which Geelong loaded up with clusters of players were considered the two best drafts on record. 2001 was considered a ‘super draft’.

That was good timing.  Some may say it was lucky, but Geelong was rebuilding and knowing those drafts were brimming with talent, made room on their list to accommodate the new arrivals. If luck played a part, it was that the Cats were lucky to be rebuilding at the time of those drafts.

Of the 14 players drafted by the Cats in those years, 8 are still playing and all 8 are All-Australians. Two of them have won Brownlow medals. A ninth All-Australian (Cameron Mooney) was not drafted, but came to Geelong in 1999 during trade week.

Geelong has not had a priority draft pick, or draft pick under number 7 yet contains more All-Australians than any other team but a club’s draftees are not guaranteed longevity or success, irrespective or what number they are drafted.

This comes down to good luck, and a positive culture. Luck plays a part in the drafting of players who have significant upside, and who then fulfill their potential. The culture provides an environment that gives those players the opportunity to do so.  While chatting with a Geelong insider prior to the Geelong V Richmond game this year, the conversation turned to the differences in the culture of the two clubs. He then commented, ‘They (Richmond) were lucky to get Deledio. He’s a terrific player, but we drool when we think of what we could have done with him. He’d have at least one Brownlow by now.”

Until 2010, James Kelly was the only one of the classes of 1999 /2001 to miss an extended period of playing time due to a serious injury (broken leg).  Long-term injuries to key players can derail a club’s plans to the point that if a number of key players receive long-term injuries, the club’s 5-year plan is worth nothing more than the paper its written on.

In terms of serious injuries to key players, the Cats have been lucky.

The Cats have also been fortunate with rookie selections (Max Rooke, Matthew Stokes, Matthew Egan, Shannon Byrnes), with top up draftees like Harry Taylor who is in contention for All-Australian honors, and with trade picks like Brad Ottens.

And then of course there are Gary Ablett, Matthew Scarlett  and Joel Selwood. Pure luck in all cases. Selwood slipped through to pick 7 and should never have. And no one knew how immediate and complete his impact would be. As for Ablett and Scarlett, the fact that both have become greats of the game has nothing to do with planning.

The final piece of luck was that in 2007, Geelong was the only team with an open premiership window. In that year, the Cats did not need to deal with 3 going into 1.  Whether through bad luck (injuries or draftees not coming on), poor culture (players not fulfilling their potential), or inconsistent drafting (no clusters), the other teams who penned 2007 in as a premiership year did not make a claim.

Whatever the case, it was a nice piece of luck to have.

Looking at the premiership teams since 1986, you will see some if not all of the “Cs” at work. The first 4 “Cs” can all be planned for but the fifth “C” can make all the hard work meaningless, leaving supporters frustrated and disillusioned and clubs with no other option but to start again.

And in a few weeks, we will see years of planning culminate with a premiership for one of the 9 teams currently left in the premiership race. With a bit of luck, it will be your team.


  1. Great summation Peteed,
    Of course the other C that has a huge influence on the others is “cockroach”. The coaching style of Thompson and Roos allowed all the other element to come together. Throw in the most important memember of any club, a good recruiter, then you have a chance of making your own luck.

  2. Top stuff!

    Just another C word that I’d toss in is “confidence”. As the competition has become one where (almost) any team can win “on a given day”, I would contend that the role of “confidence” has assumed even greater importance. Teams can build great momentum through the confidence of past wins; getting on a roll and stringing together a number of wins. Or alternatively, seem to get stuck in the mud and lose a number of consecutive games when it appears that the team is “a lot better than that on paper”.

    That is all

  3. Hey TR,

    Thanks and you are right, and that “C” word only really dawned on me this morning. The Coach is in a funny position though in that his performance is linked to the culture.

    If his methods align with the existing culture then he will be given more latitude and cop less flak. If the culture is NOT one that fosters success though, then unless he can change the culture and then bring success, he will ultimately get booted. If the club succeeds then he will be feted.

  4. Pete,
    Mr Knights being a perfect example although any one, other than James Hird, was on a flogging to nothing replacing Sheedy despite Sheedy leaving the Club with a awful list that can only play one style of footie. The attacking style that Knights ironically is trying to develop.

  5. I like your article Pete except for the ‘C’ of concessions. As I understand it Sydney & Brisbane had salary cap concessions ie. essentially a higher cap. Would you not consider this a fair counter-measure considering a: the higher cost of living in Sydney in particular, b: not being teams based in footy heartlands means they have far less local players to recruit from & less attraction to lure and/or keep players from interstate? & c: virtually no benefit from father-son recruiting – which you would have to say has been crucial especially to Geelong’s success – indeed do you think Geelong would have won any premierships without Ablett or Scarlett? eg. Bryce Gibb’s father Ross played 299 senior games for Glenelg in the SANFL + state games on top of that but this still did not qualify Bryce for father-son, which is an unfair imbalance against interstate sides compared to VFL father-son qualification wouldn’t you concede? Then draft concessions? – as a Port Adelaide supporter we had nowhere near the leg-up that Gold Coast or GWS will have – as I recall we had ten expansion draft selections to make – which had to include the players we already had at the club like Tredrea & Burgoyne. When you also consider we have never been a club flush with funds to fill out the salary cap to the limit or offer massive carrots to lure players over, how can you brush over our premiership by saying no more than ‘draft concessions, salary cap concessions’? As for Brisbane, did they not pick one Nathan Buckley who then flatly refused to stay? What other concessions did they have apart from retaining a few Fitzroy players? West Coast? Sydney? Adelaide? Draft concessions? methinks you brushed over this because there’s no evidence to support this claim. & this is before mentioning any other advantages Victorian clubs naturally enjoy eg. only 3-5 interstate away games per year compared to 8-10 for interstate clubs – & then finals games played at the MCG where the competing interstate club finished higher on the ladder & should have had home ground advantage. eg. how would Pies fans feel this year if (as per Port in 02 & 03) they lost the first final after finishing top, then found themselves in an away prelim final in Perth or Sydney? Let alone having the GF interstate? As I say I like your piece otherwise, but object to you essentially de-valuing the premierships of Brisbane, Adelaide, Port, West Coast & Sydney by brushing them over with ‘draft concessions, salary cap concessions, say no more’. don’t forget Brisbane landed 3 premierships in 3 GF’s against Victorian clubs on Victorian soil & ditto Adelaide with their 2. You can’t just brush it over – Victorians of course will swallow that because it’s what they want to hear, but weighing it all up, what’s the evidence of the draft & salary cap concessions for each of those clubs being one of the 5 essential C’s for their premierships?

  6. Dave Nadel says

    I don’t disagree with Pete’s five “C”s but don’t discount the Salary Cap. It was one of the few good things the AFL has learned from American Sport. No, Footscray and St Kilda have not won Premierships since the 50s and 60s but they were both top four last year and will be again this year.

    Of the other traditional clubs, Melbourne are on their way back and have the money and social clout to take advantage of the draft (years of tanking) and the Salary Cap. Richmond have supporters, business backers and are entirely capable of reaching the top four in the next five years but, and here I agree with Pete’s points, they are a victim of their Culture – they go for instant solutions (see Plough) and they think that Graeme Richmond is still in charge and they can get away with anything.

    The Salary Cap only regulates players. It doesn’t stop Collingwood, Essendon, West Coast and Adelaide using their funds and huge supporter base to to provide state of the art facilities for their players and an army of coaches and support staff. On the other hand the current positions of the Bombers, Crows and Weagles suggests that money doesn’t buy you guaranteed success.

    On the other hand if you doubt the effectiveness of the Salary Cap, let me tell you about the Saints. In the USA where they have a Salary Cap, the American Football team called the Saints represents New Orleans. They were useless for years and this year won the Superbowl. In the AFL where we also have a Salary Cap, St Kilda Saints with a more than a Century long history of underacheivement, came within a couple of kicks of the Premiership last year.

    In the UK where their professional football code does not have a Salary Cap – the Saints are Southampton, who have never won the English Premier League Championship (or First Division, which preceded the EPL) Unless they are taken over by an Oil Sheikh or an American Media Millionaire they never will win a Championship because only about four clubs are rich enough to buy the world’s best players. Where would you rather be a Saints supporter?

  7. Hey James #5
    Thanks for the feedback, and was not my intention to demean the efforts of those Clubs. Concessions is only one of the Cs, and happy for priority draft picks (Hawthorn 08) and father-son draft picks (Geelong 07 09) to be considered concessions (though in reality, Ablett was only considered to be worth a 2nd round draft pick and we got him at 40 so a bit of a discount, and Scarlett was not really rated at all).
    Port Adelaide was borne from a very strong culture of success, and as a new list had a cluster of players who grew together over a period of time.
    But the fact 10 of the past 23 premierships have been won by the new Clubs and that 5 of those 10 were won within 5 years of the formation of the premier shows to me that there’s some correlation. If I then push the envelope and discard the period that Brisbane were the Bad News Bears (ie.1987 to 1995) and nothing more than a “beta version” footy club who were set up to fail by the VFL…I mean AFL…then it was only 6 years from the time they got serious to the time they won the premiership.
    Given that, at least the AFL learned from the Bears experience and has not treated newly formed Clubs as poorly since.

  8. 5 Cs?
    But Collingwood only has ONE C :P

  9. David Downer says

    …and only One C in “Colliwobbles” also Danni. Insert laughing emoticon here – if I knew how.

    Well written Pete.

    I think “clover” is one factor sorely underestimated by the populous. In today’s “analyse the bejeezus out of everything” game (so everyone can justify an existence), sometimes we just have to put things down to plain ole’ luck – without the need for any far-reaching Spanish Inquisition.


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