The Age of Coaches


One of the beauties of Australian Rules Football, our game, is that it is a living thing. As much as some people yearn for the past, which is usually their youth, life changes, and football does too.

   Every decade or two a change in style or innovation has taken the game forward. Changes that often mirror the shifting society around them.  Each time this happens the cry has gone out: “ They’re killing our game! “ Yet with each new generation, there is a whole new love for now, and the cycle repeats. Football moves on and thrives. 

   Examples of such changes are many. Jack Dyer’s ‘strange looking’ drop punts. Barassi’s attacking handball, Sheedy’s players who could be swung back, forward, or on-ball, his 6ft2” running back flankers.

   For each coaching move that changed the game, there were players who preceded, if not inspired, it. Polly Farmer with his handball, Dench and Southby with their attack from the full-back line. Len Thompson’s mobile ruck.

   Darren Bewick had a stellar career for Essendon. Towards its end his blistering pace, flare and precision skills were used off the bench. He was probably the first interchange player to be a genuine weapon, rather than a last resort.

   Now, over the past decade, the attacking use of interchange, with on-ball rotations, has lifted the game to another level again. The speed of the players, always fresh, the intensity of their tackling, pressure and chase, have all taken football to scary heights.

   Yet the evolution of Australian Rules Football over the past 100 years is nothing compared to this current, unprecedented, time of change. A movement has been developing, evolving right under our noses, that has, and will continue to, radically alter the way the game is played.

   The Age of Coaching, for better or worse, is taking Aussie Rules more and more down a path similar to that of Gridiron.

   Gone are the days of outcry when Ron Barassi dragged Malcom Blight for kicking a freak goal from the boundary when team plan dictated he centre the ball. Blight was a natural footballer, who had spent the most of his career being left to do his thing. These days players are groomed from their early teens, to not just play well, but have their heads set straight. To be up-standing citizens, team players. They are drilled to listen to their coaches and follow team rules, and, more importantly, set plays and team plans.

   Each team has not so much a ‘coach’, but a coaching team, headed by one man. With forward, back and on-ball coaches watching their charges, all players must run to the right spots whether they get the ball or not. There is less chance of the individual getting away with playing his own game.

   Now, a football club is less structured around its better players. Indeed, it is the other way around. Half the reason so many people still loved Brendan Fevola is they know he is a dying breed. Talent is no longer an excuse. Coaches don’t have to pull their hair out while bemoaning the flip-sides of genius.

   Paul Roos, as a player, mastered zoning off. Soon, Terry Wallace used flooding to stop an undefeated Essendon in 2000.

   Then Roos, as a coach, took flooding to another level. His Swans simply strangled the life out of teams.

   Port won its, and the league’s first ‘possession football’ Premiership. Contest for the ball was to be avoided at all costs.

   So Roos, the coach, took flooding to another level again. No-longer was he using extra players stationed in defence. He utilized hard running forwards like Ryan O’Keefe, with enormous work ethics, to run both ways.

   Hawthorn invented the rolling defence. Geelong countered with the play-on-at-all-costs, exciting, attacking football.

   Roos then consolidated the Age of Coaches with his tempo football. He structured a team, of limited ability, to be so disciplined as to be two teams, depending on the time and moment of game. A team that shut a match down, giving themselves time to breath and/or stop run-ons, with cool, cold possessions. And a team that, once their opposition’s momentum was shot, could switch to all-out attack.

   His Sydney unit was full of individuals – the Goodes’, the Kirks, the McVeighs – but built around none of them.

   Finally, Mick Malthouse’s Collingwood won through to last year’s Premiership by not only bringing back the contested football, but by relishing it. His team’s use of pressure, its intensity at the player and the ball, gave opposition no time to structure any plans against it. His men played the boundary, if in doubt forcing the ball out, then reloading for each throw-in. Coming in wide to tall contests and crumbers, all left one-on-one.

   It was a game plan that capped off so much change in just one decade of football.

   This conflict method had worked all year, making Collingwood firm flag favourites. But when some great marking, fast re-bounding St.Kilda defenders and a few individual efforts from Goodard and Hayes almost stole Collingwood’s glory, no worries. Malthouse came back next week with a totally different game plan.  

   He employed taggers, and instructed his team to chip through the corridor, keeping possession, breaking down the St. Kilda back-line.

   Five or more years of playing a certain way, and within a week, the entire team, to a man, were playing to another plan.

   This year’s flag was won in the box.

   With playing lists bread to first-and-foremost, follow instructions and set plays, and having the skills and fitness to pull them off, coaching has never mattered more.

   Don’t bemoan the past. It was brilliant, but so is the future. The game is now only limited by a coach’s imagination.

   Be ready for change.

   And counter change.


  1. Agree Matt. Without putting words in your mouth you are essentially celebrating the fact that the game evolves via different coaching structures and approaches. What concerns me is the seemingly constant interference from the AFL regarding rule changes. They have a committee dedicated to it forchrissakes. They are manipulating things to “produce” a game rather than have the game grow on its own. Sort of like genetically modified food.

  2. matt zurbo says

    Right again, Dips.

    Every year for the past decade, when an umpir gets carried away while we’re playing, usually at the start of the year, one of us has to bark/growl at him: “This isn’t the fucking AFL…”

  3. John Butler says

    Spot on Matt.

    The window of tactical advantage shrinks by the day.

    Dips, don’t get me started on the rules. And the “interpretations” forced on the umpires.

  4. I love the fact the the game can be influenced form the coaches box. A while back I saw the QAFL GF between Mt Gravatt (experienced and packed full of current and ex-Bears/Lions) vs Western Districts (younger including an 18yr old Max Hudgton playing his last game for the club before moving to St Kilda). Should have been a cakewalk for the Vultures.

    Danny Craven, Wests player-coach (ex-Saints), figured the only way to beat the more experienced Vultures was by running them off their feet. For the first half, everytime Wests got the ball they would switch across the backline run out wide on the Gabba wings then switch back. Max Hudgton was pretty well the only one who sat on his opponent. Each player would run to space dragging an opponent with them. It looked insane, they were down by about 30 points, but were hardly trying to score.

    In the third quarter the tide turned. Mt Gravatt couldn’t get to the ball and Wests were now going more direct. At the break they were down by one or two kicks. The message was; “Keep the pressure on, they have nothing left”. Ended up an easy win with Wests going away, Mt Gravatt hardly scoring in the final term.

    Brilliant coaching, game plan and ‘buy in’ from the players.

  5. Interesting piece Matt :)
    I have to say that if i could chose the next coach
    for Collingwood (if Bucks wasn’t in line already)i would pick
    Gordon Ramsay. no one, not even Mick Malthouse delivers a spray like chef
    Gordon Ramsay (watch Hells Kitchen for plently of examples)

  6. Paul Roos always gets a bum rap on the flooding tactic. It was Eade who pioneered it. Roos actually used a man on man system, but commentators from Melb who paid no attention to Sydney, and had no idea of what was happening during a match, perpetuated the myth.

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